A Natural Path to Remission?

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I THOUGHT I PAID

By: Rabbi Max Sutton

Brenda is an experienced dressmaker who regularly designs gowns for lavish affairs. Sandy, mother of the bride, hired Brenda to sew her gown. Two months after the wedding, Brenda called Sandy to collect the $1500 owed to her for her services. Sandy replied that although she clearly remembers that she did not pay Brenda when she first picked up the gown, she thinks she paid for it in cash one week later. Sandy explained that when she dropped off the petticoat she had borrowed from Brenda, she was carrying the money owed, and presumes she paid Brenda at that time. Furthermore, Sandy complained that the original price of the gown was only $1000, not $1500, as Brenda claims. In Bet Din, Brenda was adamant that Sandy did not provide payment, and that the amount due is $1500. Brenda agreed that Sandy indeed dropped off the petticoat about a week later, but claims she never received payment at that meeting.

Is Sandy required to pay $1500 or $1000 or is she exempt from paying Brenda? How should the Bet Din rule and why?

TORAH LAW

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, in the absence of all evidence, an employee is entitled to collect his wages from his employer who is claiming that he already paid. Hence, upon declaring under oath that he was not yet paid, the employee is entitled to collect his wages. This ruling is applicable only in instances in which the dispute began on the day when payment was due. If, however, time elapsed since payment was due and thereafter the dispute emerged, the employee is not awarded payment, even if he is willing to take an oath. The rationale behind this distinction is that once pay day passes without contention, it serves as an indication that the employee was indeed paid. Thus, if the employee only claims his wages after its due date, the employer is exempt from payment after testifying under oath that he already paid. Additional reasoning is given for the above ruling, though this basic explanation is sufficient for the scope of this article.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, a borrower or any type of debtor is liable to pay a creditor seeking payment if he is unsure of whether or not he paid his debt. Since the debtor acknowledges that he at one point in time owed money to the creditor, he must definitively claim that he paid his debt in full in order to release himself of his
pre-existing obligation. In short, it is the responsibility of the debtor to clearly remember whether or not he paid his bill. If he is unsure, the creditor is entitled to collect. Furthermore, in such instances, a creditor is not required to take an oath since the debtor is unsure of his claim.

Thus, like all debtors, an employer who can only presume that he paid his employee is liable, and the employee or contractor is awarded payment without taking oath. Therefore, if a client is unsure if she paid a dressmaker her wages, she is obligated to satisfy the dressmaker’s claim by providing payment.

An oath instituted by biblical law is imposed on a debtor, when his own admission partially substantiates a claim against him. Hence, if a creditor claims he is owed one thousand five hundred dollars and the debtor admits that he owes a thousand dollars and not more, the debtor is required to swear that his response is true. In other words, he is required to swear that he does not owe the additional five hundred dollars. The same biblical oath applies when the creditor’s claim is partially substantiated, not by the debtor’s own admission, but by two witnesses. Hence, if a creditor claims he is owed one thousand five hundred dollars and the debtor replies that he owes him nothing, and subsequently two witnesses testify that he owes one thousand dollars, the debtor is required to pay the thousand as per the testimony against him, and to swear that he does not owe an additional five hundred.

Some halachic authorities rule that a halachic decision for partial payment rendered by a Bet Din is similar to the above instances of partial admission. According to this opinion a debtor is required to make a biblical oath with regard to a disputed balance in instances in which a Bet Din determines that by law, partial payment is due. Hence, if a creditor claims one thousand five hundred dollars is owed, and the debtor replies that the original amount owed was only one thousand and he is unsure if he paid, he is required to pay a thousand and swear that he does not owe the five-hundred-dollar balance. As aforementioned, by law, a debtor is liable to pay his bill unless he clearly remembers that he already paid. When, by law, a partial monetary obligation is determined by a Bet Din, it triggers a requirement to swear with regard to the balance. Other halachic authorities differ, and do not impose a biblical oath on a debtor in the event a Bet Din determines that, by law, partial payment is due.

Due to the severity of testifying under biblical oath, which includes swearing while holding a Sefer Torah, it is common practice of all rabbinical courts to waive the oath in exchange for monetary compensation. Thus, instead of a defendant taking such an oath, a settlement is arranged obligating him to pay 50% of the balance.

VERDICT

You’ve Got to Know

Our Bet Din ruled in favor of Brenda by obligating Sandy to pay a sum total of $1200. As mentioned in Torah law, since Sandy does not clearly remember paying Brenda and only presumes she did so, she is initially required to pay the $1000 she deems was the cost of Brenda’s labor. With regard to the $500 balance of Brenda’s claim, our Bet Din obligated Sandy to pay close to half, which amounted to an additional $200. As mentioned in Torah law, numerous halachic authorities rule that once a partial payment is in order, it triggers an obligation on Sandy to accept a biblical oath with regard to her exemption of the $500 balance. Customarily, all rabbinical courts waive this biblical oath in exchange for a monetary payment equivalent to 50% of the plaintiff’s claim. Since other halachic authorities do not require Sandy to take a biblical oath, but rather one of rabbinic origin, we arranged a settlement requiring her to pay only an additional $200, slightly less than half the $500 balance.