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WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND

By: Rabbi Max Sutton



THE CASE

What Goes Around Comes Around

Steven has owed Harry nearly $30,000 for over twenty years. The outstanding debt was a result of Steven never paying Harry for the last shipment of merchandise delivered to his retail store. At the time of the sale Steven had personally guaranteed payment for the goods, but he avoided his obligation all along. In the interim, Harry closed his wholesale business and became a jeweler who regularly sold and repaired jewelry. This past summer Steven’s wife brought her diamond bracelet to Harry for repairs, unaware of the $30,000 debt her husband owed Harry. Upon receiving the bracelet, Harry phoned Steven to remind him of his debt and to inform him that he was now in possession of his wife’s diamond bracelet, which he plans to sell and use the funds to finally collect the outstanding debt. Steven approached our Bet Din to summons Harry, but Harry initially refused to appear in Bet Din. Harry explained his position claiming that Steven was unwilling to resolve his claim in Bet Din for over twenty years. Harry eventually agreed to sign a binding of arbitration with our Bet Din, which clearly stipulated that the parties are entrusting our Bet Din to settle all matters of dispute between them.

Is Harry entitled to withhold the diamond bracelet for collection? Or is he required to return the bracelet and continue with standard legal proceedings to collect his debt? How should the Bet Din rule and why?

TORAH LAW

According to the ruling of theShulhan Aruch, in certain instances one is permitted to take the law into his own hands. Although an explicit verse in the Torah restricts a lender from forcibly collecting from a borrower, nevertheless, one is permitted to forcibly retrieve his stolen item from a thief. However, even when collecting from a thief, restrictions do apply. It is only permissible to do so when clear evidence exists proving that the item stolen is indeed yours. Furthermore, one is only permitted to take back the specific item which was stolen and not a different personal belonging of the thief. Additionally, many halachic authorities permit the forcible collection of an employee’s unpaid wages. Since this ruling is subject to further conditions and terms, a competent halachic authority must be contacted before forcibly collecting.

 A crucial condition regarding such activity is that before forcibly collecting, one is required to verify that he is not in violation of the civil law of the country of his residence. Taking the law into one’s hands can sometimes be unlawful and dangerous.

Leading halachic authorities debate whether one is permitted to withhold an item for payment when the item was entrusted with him for safekeeping or repairs. According to some opinions since the item is already in the creditor’s possession it is clearly permitted for him to withhold it as collateral for payment. As mentioned, when there is any type of overdue debt, other than money loaned to another, one is entitled to take the law into his own hands and forcibly collect.

However, most halachic authorities differ and specifically forbid withholding an item or money that was entrusted. Interestingly, the reasoning for stringency regarding an entrusted item is based on a passage in the Zohar. TheZohar elaborates on the method in which Gd takes the soul of a person who is sleeping. Each night we deposit and entrust our soul with Gd, and the Almighty faithfully returns to us our soul each day. Even if the time has come for a person to pass away in the middle of the night, Gd faithfully returns the soul entrusted with him before taking the life. The person is awoken for a split second in the night, and once awake, Gd takes the life. Gd returns the soul entrusted with him even if that soul is deeply indebted to him for all the sins and crimes it performed. Based on this passage, our great sages of yesteryear determined that it is forbidden for a creditor to withhold an entrusted item to collect his debt. From this ruling it is apparent that is the Jewish peoples’ fervent responsibility to emulate the ways of the Almighty.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, any property or jewelry that a woman owns before her marriage is legally hers and not her husband’s. Nonetheless, since by law the husband is entitled to the dividends and proceeds of such assets while they are married, she is restricted from selling her property without her husband’s consent. By law, a creditor is not entitled to collect the debt of a husband from property that belongs to his wife.

VERDICT

The Buck Stops Here

Our Bet Din ruled that Harry was required by law to return the diamond bracelet to Steven’s wife for multiple reasons. As mentioned in Torah Law, many halachic authorities restrict collecting a debt by withholding an entrusted item. The reasoning for this stringency is based on a passage in the Zohar. Each night we entrust our soul with Gd and he faithfully returns it to us each day. Even if the time has come for a person to pass away in the middle of the night, Gd faithfully returns the soul entrusted to him before taking the life. The person is awoken from his sleep and only then does Gd take the life. G-d returns the soul even if the soul is deeply indebted to him for all the sins and crimes it performed. Our great sages determined that it is our responsibility to emulate Gd, and they restricted a creditor from withholding an entrusted item to collect his debt.

Furthermore, the diamond bracelet was a gift Steven’s wife received from her father prior to her marriage, and is her private property. She is not required to bear the responsibility of her husband’s business issues. Harry is required to first return the valuable bracelet and then to continue legal proceedings in our Bet Din.