Yaakov serves as an assistant rabbi of a prominent organization in Netanya, Israel. The head of the organization suggested to Yaakov that he travel to Panama City to raise funds for the organization, as they wished to launch the opening of a yeshiva high school. Yaakov complied and spent two weeks in Panama raising a total of $15,000 for the cause, in addition to collecting a $5,000 deposit towards the dedication of a Sefer Torah donated to the organization by a member of the Panamanian community. As customary, Yaakov cashed the checks he received in Panama before leaving and he placed the money in his carry-on bag. The plane made a layover for refueling, allowing passengers to get on and off before continuing on its final destination. Yaakov spent the entire layover sleeping in an empty row, two rows behind his seat. When the plane prepared for takeoff Yaakov returned to his seat, but first checked for his carry-on bag in the overhead stowage bin. Unfortunately, his bag with the twenty thousand dollars cash was missing, not to mention his tefillin and other personal belongings that were also in the bag. Apparently, one of the passengers stole the bag as they disembarked during the layover. Upon arrival in Israel our Bet Din was confronted with the obvious dilemma of whether Yaakov is personally liable for the loss of the funds.
How should the Bet Din rule and why?
According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, a custodian entrusted with cash for safekeeping is required to exercise the utmost care of the cash deposit. Rules and regulations detail the level of responsibility of even an unpaid custodian and are clearly more stringent in the event the custodian is being compensated for his services. In instances in which one is traveling with cash to deliver, he is required to keep the cash on him, in a front pocket or in a hand purse that is always visible to him.
Interestingly, Torah law differentiates between one who safeguards money belonging to charity and one who safeguards private funds. While in both instances it is the responsibility of the custodian to do his utmost to protect the funds, nevertheless, if charity money is misplaced or stolen, the custodian is absolved from payment.
The underlying reasoning for this ruling is that no one party is the owner of the funds and in the absence of a claimant the custodian is absolved of payment. More specifically, upon analysis, the donor of the funds has fulfilled the mitzva of giving charity and is no longer the owner of the money donated. Hence, he may not file suit against the custodian. Likewise, the intended recipients of the funds, namely, the poor and needy, were not defined by name at the time of the donation, thus rendering them as an unknown party to the transaction and they cannot file suit against the custodian.
This same ruling is applicable to money collected for a charitable project that has never launched. Since the identity of the intended recipients is unknown, no party can legally make a claim against the custodian. Even the president of the organization interested in launching the project is not entitled to collect misplaced funds from the custodian since he is not the owner of the funds. While the head of the organization enjoys distributing funds, he is not viewed as owner of the funds, and he cannot claim restitution from the custodian.
If, however, the names of the charity recipients are defined prior to the custodian misplacing the money, or in the common instance in which an organization must pay its existing payroll of teachers or service providers, the above ruling differs. Since the recipient/s are named, the named recipients are entitled to collect from the custodian.
Although a Bet Din will rule in exemption in the event a custodian negligently loses charity funds, nevertheless, halachic authorities dispute whether there is a moral obligation to reimburse the organization. Some authorities require the custodian to satisfy a moral or Heavenly obligation to reimburse the charity while others differ and rule in complete exemption.
Needless to say, in the event a custodian misplaces a payment intended for a worker or contractor, he is liable to reimburse the funds. Since the contractor can claim payment for his services from his employer, the employer in turn, is entitled to collect from the custodian. This ruling is applicable even if the contractor is a scribe preparing a Sefer Torah for dedication.
VERDICT: Answering to a Higher Authority
Our Bet Din ruled that Yaakov is exempt from paying the $15,000 of charity funds he negligently lost. However, he is liable for the $5,000 he was delivering to the scribe writing the Sefer Torah. As detailed in the Torah law section of this article, since neither the donors nor the unidentified teachers or students of the forthcoming yeshiva have rights to the funds, they are unable to sue Yaakov on account of his negligence. Even the president of the organization who intends on distributing the funds, is unable to collect the loss from Yaakov. Since charity money is not his personal property, rather the property of the unnamed staff and student body, he is not eligible to file suit. The mere right and benefit the president of the organization had to distribute the funds is not grounds to enable him to file a claim. The underlying reasoning for this ruling is that such a benefit is not of significant monetary value.
The above is applicable to the charity funds Yaakov was transporting. However, Yaakov is clearly liable for the money designated for the scribe that he negligently lost. Since the scribe can claim payment for his services, Yaakov is liable for damages.
Nevertheless, our Bet Din informed Yaakov that ethically he is to pay for the loss to the organization in order to achieve Heavenly exemption for losing charity money. While this suggestion is a point of halachic dispute, Yaakov somewhat complied and made a partial payment to the organization. The money for the scribe was paid in full within thirty days.
In Loving Memory of Vera Bat Carol, A”H
YOU BE THE JUDGE
But It’s Mine!
Raymond was struggling for years to make his steep monthly home mortgage payments, only to recently lose his business and fall drastically behind. The bank ultimately foreclosed on his property and put his home up for sale to the highest bidder. Elliott, an affluent local businessman, heard of the foreclosure and swooped in, purchasing the property from the bank at approximately 50 percent less than full market rate. In the interim, Raymond quickly reorganized and managed to collect money to negotiate a deal with the bank, only to be disheartened when he discovered that his home was already sold. Raymond heard that Elliott purchased his home and approached him with the funds he collected, seeking to retake possession of his property. Elliott turned Raymond’s offer down, since the value of his newly acquired property was far more than what Raymond offered. In Bet Din, Raymond claimed that his offer was more than what Elliott paid the bank, and that it is simply unjust of Elliott to purchase his property right underneath his nose. Elliott responded that had he not made the purchase immediately, the property would have been taken by another buyer.
Is Raymond entitled to repossess his property from Elliott? How should the Bet Din rule and why?