1

The Bankrupt Borrower

This week’s parsha, Behar, includes details about being honest in our business dealings. Is declaring bankruptcy to absolve one of one’s debts, considered honest according to halachah?

The Bankrupt Borrower

Mr. Gomel Chessed shares with his rav, Rav Chacham, the following predicament: “I loaned someone money, and I did not hassle him for payment when he told me that things were tough. Recently, I contacted him to ask if he is in any position to pay back. He replied that he was forced into bankruptcy and thereby absolved all his debts. Does he, indeed, no longer owe me for the loan?”

Gomel’s rav explains that although the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch do not recognize a concept called bankruptcy, there are authorities who contend that, at least in some circumstances, halachah requires that a bankruptcy court’s decision be honored. Gomel is eager to hear the full explanation, so his rav provides him with some background material to read until they make an appointment to discuss the matter at length.

Gomel truly enjoyed researching the topic, and discovered that he also wanted to know all the related subjects. As a result, he became somewhat of an expert on much of the halachic material germane to his question.

Responsibilities of a Borrower

One of the first topics Gomel researched was the extent that a borrower must go to pay his debts. He was surprised to discover how strongly halachah requires someone to repay his debts and to make his payments on time. In addition, it is strictly forbidden to claim that one is unable to pay a debt when he can, and it is similarly forbidden to hide money so that a creditor cannot collect. This is true even if the creditor is very wealthy.

It is forbidden to borrow money that one does not think he will be able to repay. According to some authorities, money borrowed under the false pretense that the borrower intends to repay it is considered stolen, and not borrowed, funds. The halachic ramifications of this distinction are beyond the scope of this article.

If a debtor’s loan is due and he cannot pay, halachah requires that he sell his house, his furniture and his other household items, if necessary, to repay the debt, unless he can convince his creditor to forgive the debt or to wait longer for payment (Graz, Hilchos Halvaah 1:5).

Since the debtor must use whatever money he has available to pay his debt, he is required to trim his expenditures so that he can pay his creditor. Until his debt is repaid, he may not make significant contributions to tzedakah (Sefer Chassidim #454). Furthermore, he may not purchase a lulav and esrog, but instead must fulfill the mitzvah by borrowing from someone else (see Pischei Teshuvah, Choshen Mishpat 97:8). It goes without saying that luxuries and vacations are out. Someone who uses his money to purchase non-essential items when he has an overdue debt demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Torah’s priorities. One who squanders money and therefore is unable to repay his loans is called a rosho (Rambam, Hilchos Malveh 1:3).

Systematic Collection

Having researched how responsible a debtor must be, Gomel next studied the following topic: If a debtor unfortunately owes more money than he can pay, how does the halachah decide that we divide the debtor’s limited financial resources among his creditors?

Gomel discovered that the halachos governing who collects first are highly complicated. He also discovered that, when there are insufficient financial resources to pay all of the person’s debts, halachah views the priorities of who receives, and how much, very differently from civil law. Here are some basic ideas.

The Gemara works with a concept called shibud by which most debts are automatically secured with property that the debtor owned at the time he created the obligation. When this system was followed, if a debtor defaulted on an obligation, a creditor who exhausted all means of collecting directly from the debtor’s holdings could collect these secured debts from real properties that the debtor once owned and had subsequently sold. The system in place allowed that potential purchasers could find out whether a property had a lien on it prior to purchasing it. (This would loosely parallel what we call today a “title search” performed before purchasing property to ascertain that the property is without any liens and that the seller has clear ownership.) The potential lien on all the properties of a debtor encouraged people to pay their debts so that they could sell their properties more easily, and also enabled people to borrow investment capital.

Who Collects First?

Under the Gemara’s shibud system, when there are two or more claims on a property whose value is less than the outstanding debt, the creditor with the earliest claim collects as much as he can, and, after his claim is paid, the creditor with the next earliest claim collects, and so on (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 104:1).

When Gomel asked contemporary halachic authorities if this system is used today, he was told that one would not be able to collect from such properties unless they were mortgaged.

Why did the halachah change?

Since today no one applies the system of the Gemara, the creditor did not expect to be able to collect from any properties after the debtor sells them. As a result, the creditor did not acquire shibud on any of the debtor’s properties (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:62).

Bad Talmudic Debts

When there is no shibud claim on any properties, then, under the Gemara’s system, the outstanding creditors collect, but not proportional to the amount that each is owed. According to most authorities, we still follow whose claim is earliest. Others rule that everyone is paid equally according to the availability of resources (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 104:13 and Sma). Either approach results in a major difference between the Gemara’s system and the modern approach. Under the modern approach, the court calculates what is the ratio of the available resources to the debt, and pays all creditors a percentage of the debt based on the result.

By now, Gomel has studied much of the Gemara and commentaries on the topic of debt collection, and he has a good idea how bad debt was collected in the time of the Gemara. After reviewing his studies with Rav Chacham, Gomel is ready to understand how and if bankruptcy fits into a halachic system. He soon discovers that he now needs to master a very complicated concept of halachah called dina demalchusa dina.

Dina Demalchusa Dina

In the time of the Gemara, most countries and governments were kingdoms. This meant that the people living in an area recognized one individual to be responsible to maintain law and order within the country and to protect the citizenry from external enemies and greedy neighbors. Without a government, people are in constant danger from the chaos that occurs when there is no respect for a central authority. To quote the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:2), “Pray for the peace of the kingdom, for if people are not afraid of it, one man will swallow another alive.” Anyone who has ever seen or read of the mass looting that transpires when there is a breakdown of authority knows exactly what this means.

The king or government requires an army to protect the country from its external enemies, a police force to uphold law and order, and royal palaces and government offices that are well maintained so that the king’s authority is respected. All this requires funding, and the people realize that they need to pay taxes so that the king and/or government can protect them (see Rashbam, Bava Basra 54b s.v. VeHa’amar). The halachah of dina demalchusa dina recognizes that the king and his properly appointed agents have the right to collect taxes (Nedarim 28a).

Din Melech

When the tribes of Israel approached their prophet, Shmuel, requesting that he appoint a king, Shmuel attempted to dissuade them by noting the tremendous power that a king has. He will draft the most talented sons to till his fields, harvest his crops and perform other services; he will draft their daughters as perfumers, bakers and cooks; and he will raise high taxes (Shmuel I 8:11-18). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 20a) cites a dispute as to whether a Jewish monarch has the extensive authority that Shmuel describes or if Shmuel was simply threatening the people in an attempt to dissuade them from having a king. The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 4:1) and most authorities rule that the king indeed does have this authority.

Some poskim understand that a non-Jewish king, also, draws his authority based on this concept of din melech. That is, the Torah reserved the rights described by the prophet Shmuel for any monarch. (Even for those who contend that Shmuel was merely threatening the people and that the king does not have this extensive authority, the concept of dina demalchusa dina is still accepted; they simply do not consider the din melech of Shmuel to be the source of the law of dina demalchusa dina.)

Democratic Taxes

Although the early authorities discuss dina demalchusa dina primarily in terms of the rights of a king, most later authorities understand that this halachic power exists equally in a democracy (see Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 5:63).

Gomel discovered that the vast majority of halachic authorities regard dina demalchusa dina as a Torah-mandated concept (see Shu’t Dvar Avraham 1:1; Avnei Meluim 28:2; Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #314), although there is a minority opinion that contends that dina demalchusa dina was introduced by Chazal (Beis Shemuel, 28:3).

Many authorities rule that a king may not arbitrarily create new taxes; he may only collect that which has been previously established (Ritva, Nedarim 28a; see lengthy list in Encyclopedia Talmudis, Volume 7, page 318, footnote 559). Why is this true? When people appointed the original king to protect them, they accepted certain taxes with which to pay him for his “services.” According to these rishonim, neither this king nor his successors have an arbitrary right to create new taxes or increase taxes without the consent of the governed.

Traffic and Safety Regulations

Thus far, we have seen that dina demalchusa dina governs the right of the king or the government to collect taxes. Dina demalchusa dina also requires obeying rules of the government, such as the prohibitions against smuggling and counterfeiting. However, dina demalchusa dina goes much further. Some authorities maintain that dina demalchusa dina requires everyone to obey government-created rules that are clearly for the common good (Ramban, Bava Basra 55a). One may argue that this includes traffic laws, and regulations governing sanitation, safety and health. Those who do not agree that dina demalchusa dina extends this far feel that dina demalchusa dina is limited to matters that more directly affect the government (see Maggid Mishnah, Hilchos Malveh 27:1). All opinions agree that dina demalchusa dina applies to matters which breach the authority of the governing parties (Igros Moshe op. cit.). The exact extent to which this is applied practically will affect Gomel’s original question, whether dina demalchusa dina applies to bankruptcy law.

No Government Influence

What areas of halachah are not subject to dina demalchusa dina?

Dina demalchusa dina does not replace the civil laws of the Torah (the laws of Choshen Mishpat) that govern the relationships between Jews (Shu’t Harashba 3:109, quoted by Beis Yosef, Choshen Mishpat end of Chapter 26; Shach, Choshen Mishpat 73:39). For example, dina demalchusa dina does not affect the laws of inheritance. These laws are governed by the Torah’s laws of yerushah.

Similarly, the laws of damages (nezakin), the laws of shomrim – responsibility for taking care of someone else’s property – and the property laws involved in  marriage are all areas of halachah in which Jews are required to follow the laws of the Torah. Therefore, when a Jew lends an item to another, the laws governing his responsibility are those of the Torah, not the local civil code. This is because it is no infringement on the government’s authority when people make their own arrangements as to how to manage these areas of their lives (Igros Moshe).

Government Influence

On the other hand, there are certain areas of contract law that are heavily influenced by dina demalchusa dina. For example, the laws of employee relations are governed by local custom (Yerushalmi, Bava Metzia 7:1), and these are usually heavily influenced by civil law.

What about Bankruptcy?

As I wrote above, the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch do not mention any concept of bankruptcy. Gomel began to research if anyone discusses whether or not halachah recognizes the laws of bankruptcy under the laws of dina demalchusa dina. Indeed, he discovered a dispute among great authorities of the late twentieth century whether dina demalchusa dina applies to the laws of bankruptcy. In a responsum, Rav Moshe Feinstein rules

that dina demalchusa dina applies only to matters in which the government takes an interest because they may affect the stability of the country. For example, if the country does not have consistent markets, this could create problems that the government wants to avoid. Therefore, the government has a halachic right under dina demalchusa dina to insist that its laws insuring stable markets are followed.

Rav Moshe concludes that the laws of bankruptcy are within the parameters of dina demalchusa dina, since the government has a right to insist that there be a consistent rule of law applied throughout the country regarding how bad debts are discharged.

In the case brought before Rav Moshe, a company had gone bankrupt, and the directors had paid one of its creditors for his outstanding debt in violation of the bankruptcy rulings. The question was whether the individual was required to return the money that he had been paid because of dina demalchusa dina. Rav Moshe ruled that if the company had already filed for bankruptcy when this money was paid, then the creditor is halachically required to return the money. This is because dina demalchusa dina establishes the regulations how one may pay once one has filed for bankruptcy.

We find responsa from two prominent European authorities, Rav Yitzchak Weiss (Shu’t Minchas Yitzchak 3:134), then the av beis din of Manchester (and later the Gaon Av Beis Din of the Eidah HaChareidis in Yerushalayim), and from Rav Yaakov Breisch of Zurich, Switzerland (Shu’t Chelkas Yaakov 3:160). (It is interesting to note that these two great poskim were mechutanim.) From the limited description of the cases that each responsum contains, it seems that they were asked concerning the same situation:

Reuven advanced Shimon a personal loan, and Shimon subsequently declared bankruptcy. As required by law, Shimon had notified all his creditors, Reuven included, that he had filed for bankruptcy protection and that Reuven had the right to protest the bankruptcy arrangements. Reuven did not protest the bankruptcy proceedings, which ultimately ruled that Shimon was required to pay only thirty cents per dollar owed to his creditors.

Subsequently, Reuven sued Shimon in beis din for the entire loan. Shimon contended that he is not required to pay Reuven any more than the thirty cents to the dollar that the bankruptcy court ruled that he was required to pay. Reuven, the creditor, claimed that he had never forgiven any part of the loan. He claimed that he did not protest the bankruptcy proceedings for several reasons, among them that he was unaware that a personal loan which was not meant for profit is included in bankruptcy proceedings.

The rav who was asked the shaylah referred it to these well-known poskim. They both contend that dina demalchusa dina does not apply to bankruptcy procedures. In their opinion, dina demalchusa dina never supplants an area of halachah where the Torah provides its own guidelines.

They do agree that if there was evidence that Reuven had accepted the court’s ruling, he would no longer be entitled to full payment, because he had been mocheil, forgiven, the balance of the loan. Once someone is mocheil a loan or part of a loan, he cannot afterwards claim it. However, they contend that in the situation at hand, there is no evidence that Reuven was ever mocheil the balance of the loan.

It would seem from Rav Moshe Feinstein’s responsum that he would have ruled differently and contended that once the court declared Shimon bankrupt, Reuven would have been obligated to honor the court’s decision because of dina demalchusa dina.

At this point, Gomel sat down to discuss with Rav Chacham whether his own debtor can claim protection from the balance of his loan because he has declared bankruptcy. According to the Chelkas Yaakov, the Minchas Yitzchak, and other authorities, the debtor has no basis for claiming bankruptcy protection. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, one would have to check with an attorney whether the debtor’s bankruptcy protects him legally from Gomel’s loan even though Gomel was not informed of the bankruptcy proceedings. Assuming that the bankruptcy proceedings can, indeed, protect the debtor, it would seem that, according to Rav Moshe and some other authorities, the debtor has grounds to his argument.

Conclusion

Lending money is a valuable mitzvah. When someone fulfills the mitzvah of lending money to a fellow Jew, he is not providing a gift, but a loan that he has a right to expect will be repaid. As the Tanna, Rabbi Shimon, notes in the second chapter of Pirkei Avos, “the evil path from which a person should distance himself” can be explained easily in the words of Dovid Hamelech: The wicked borrow and do not repay; whereas the righteous is gracious in his giving. Someone who borrows must always have a plan how he intends to return the funds.




The Saga of the Expired Ticket

PART I: The Saga of the Expired Ticket

Two yeshiva students, Beryl Bernstein and Aaron Adler*, make an appointment to discuss a financial matter with me. Thank G-d, there is no ill feeling between them, just a practical question regarding who is required to pay for a plane ticket. Here is the background to the story:

Beryl and Aaron were taking a brief trip to visit their families. Beryl purchased a round trip ticket, whereas Aaron had the return ticket from his previous trip and was planning to purchase a ticket back to Yeshiva from home. All went well on the trip there; however, shortly after their arrival, Beryl took ill and realized that he would be unable to return to yeshiva on the flight he had originally booked. The travel agent informed his parents that although it was impossible to transfer the ticket to a later flight, he could rewrite the ticket in someone else’s name with only a small transfer fee.

Beryl called Aaron, asking him if he had as yet purchased a ticket back, which indeed he had not. Aaron discussed the matter with his parents, who decided to help out the Bernsteins, since Aaron needed a new ticket anyway. Beryl’s parents instructed the agent to change the name on the ticket while leaving the billing on their credit card. The Bernsteins agreed that they will pay the change fee whereas the Adlers will compensate them for the price of the ticket.

All was fine until the morning of the flight. Aaron woke up sick; clearly he would not be flying today. The Adlers contacted the issuing travel agent to find out what he could do with the ticket. He responded that he could transfer the ticket yet again but needed the Bernsteins’ approval to change the billing on their credit card. The Adlers tried many times to contact the Bernsteins to arrange the change of ticket, but were unsuccessful at reaching them. Unfortunately, the ticket went unused and became worthless.

Later, both Aaron and Beryl purchased new tickets for the flight back to yeshiva. In the meantime, the Adlers have not yet paid the Bernsteins for the first ticket and have the following question: Must they pay for the ticket which they were unable to use, thus requiring them to pay for two tickets? In their opinion, all they were trying to do was to help out the Bernsteins from having the ticket go to waste, although unfortunately it did anyway. The Adlers contend that they had found a cheaper ticket and chose to help out the Bernsteins even though it was more expensive. They feel it unfair to expect them to compensate the Bernsteins for attempting to do a favor that backfired, particularly since they tried to reach the Bernsteins to make sure the ticket did not go to waste.

On their part, the Bernsteins contend that other people were interested in using Beryl’s ticket, and that they sold it to the Adlers for the Adlers’ benefit. Furthermore, they note that they were not home the day the Adlers called because they were away at a simcha and that they did have their cell phones with them.

Are the Adlers obligated to compensate the Bernsteins for the unused ticket or not?

PART II: Who Appears Before the “Judge”?

Aaron and Beryl came to me with the request that I resolve an issue germane to the payment of an airline ticket. Before hearing details of the case, I asked them who were the parties to the litigation. Were Aaron and Beryl assuming responsibility to pay? Both fine, young gentlemen respond that the parents are assuming responsibility. The bachurim noted that there is no ill will between the families, simply a true desire to do what is halachically correct. Both sets of parents felt that a rav near their sons’ yeshiva would be the easiest way to resolve the issue in an amicable and halachically proper fashion.

I pointed out to Aaron and Beryl that while asking a rav to clarify the halacha is indeed an excellent way to resolve the matter, at the same time, the situation was in one way somewhat unusual. Ordinarily, when two parties submit litigation to a rav or a Beis Din, each party makes a kabbalas kinyan (to be explained shortly) obligating them to obey the decision of that particular rav or Beis Din. In the modern world, the two parties also typically sign an arbitration agreement that they are accepting this rav’s or Beis Din’s adjudication. Although halacha does not require signing an arbitration agreement, this is done nowadays in order to provide simple proof that both parties accepted the particular Beis Din’s authority and to strengthen the Beis Din’s power as an arbitration board under secular law. (In most locales and circumstances, a civil court will accept the decision of a Beis Din as a form of binding arbitration.)

WHAT IS A KABBALAS KINYAN?

A kabbalas kinyan means performing an act that obligates one to fulfill an agreement. For example, prior to the signing of a kesubah, the chosson makes a kabbalas kinyan, usually by lifting a pen or a handkerchief, thereby demonstrating that he has accepted the responsibility to support his wife. Similarly, when appointing a rav to sell one’s chometz, one performs a kabbalas kinyan to demonstrate the authorization of the rav as one’s agent.

In our instance, a kabbalas kinyan demonstrates that one accepts the authority of this particular rav or Beis Din to rule on the matter at hand.

HARSHA’AH – POWER OF ATTORNEY

Beryl asked me, “Can’t I represent my parents in this matter?”

I answered him, “Certainly. One can appoint someone to represent him in halachic litigation by creating a harsha’ah. For example, let us say that it is impractical for the suing party to appear before the Beis Din in the city where the defendant resides. He can sue by appointing someone on his behalf and authorizing this by executing a harsha’ah, the halachic equivalent of a power of attorney.”

I returned to the case at hand.

“Therefore, in our case, the two of you could represent your parents by having them execute harsha’os appointing you as their respective agents.”

Aaron piped up: “I don’t think anyone really wants to make a full din torah out of this. I think we simply want to know what is the right thing to do according to halacha.”

Technically, without execution of harsha’os, either side could later claim not to have accepted the decision of the rav or Beis Din involved, and could avoid having the litigation binding. Nevertheless, in our situation, both parties seemed honorable and simply wanted to know the halacha. Both sons said that their parents had requested that they jointly ask a shaylah and that they would follow the decision. Thus, although following the strict rules of litigation requires both a harsha’ah and a kabbalas kinyan from each side, I elected to handle the situation informally, calculating that this would generate the most shalom.

PART III: Are They Parties or Participants?

Why didn’t I have the two bachurim each make a kabbalas kinyan binding themselves to my ruling?

Such a kabbalas kinyan would have no value, since the person making the kabbalas kinyan binds himself to accept the authority of the specific rav or Beis Din. However, the sons here are not parties to the litigation and therefore their kinyan would not bind either themselves or their parents unless they had previously executed a harsha’ah.

PART IV: Opening Arguments

Let us review the points made by each of the parties: The Adlers claim that they were simply doing a favor for the Bernsteins. They were willing to absorb a small loss for the sake of the favor, but certainly had no intention of paying the Bernsteins for a ticket that they would never use. They also feel that since they could not reach the Bernsteins to change the ticket, the Bernsteins were partially responsible for the ticket becoming void.

The Bernsteins are claiming that the Adlers purchased the ticket from them and that what occurred subsequently is exclusively the Adlers’ predicament and responsibility. Furthermore, the Bernsteins contend that the Adlers did not really save them money because there were other people who would have purchased the ticket from them. And regarding their unavailability, they were at a simcha, which is certainly a reasonable reason to be away, and they were reachable by cell phone. It is not their fault that the Adlers did not ask them for cell phone numbers.

Do the Adlers owe the Bernsteins for the ticket that they did not use? After all, the Adlers point out that they were doing the Bernsteins a favor, and that they tried to contact the Bernsteins before the ticket became worthless. Having discussed the background to this “litigation,” we need to address the halachos pertinent to the case.

PART V: In the Judge’s “Chambers”

At this point, we can consider the arguments and counter-arguments of the two parties. The Adlers’ contention that the Bernsteins were unavailable does not affect the issues at stake. The Bernsteins are not obligated to be accessible at all hours of the day, and cannot be considered as having damaged the Adlers through their unavailability. Thus, whether the Bernsteins could have been reached by cell phone or not, whether they should have remembered to supply the Adlers with their cell phone number or not, and whether they were away to celebrate a simcha or not, are all not germane to the issue.

WHO OWNED THE TICKET?

Essentially, the Adlers are contending that they assumed no fiscal liability for the ticket unless they used it, and were simply attempting to help the Bernsteins. Does this perception reflect what happened?

Certainly, if the Adlers had told the Bernsteins that they were not assuming any responsibility for the ticket unless they actually used it, they would not be liable for it. However, they did not say this when they arranged for Aaron to obtain the ticket. Rather, they had agreed that the ticket be reissued in Aaron’s name without any conditions.

The issue we need to resolve is, “Who owned the ticket when it became invalid?” Here we have a somewhat complicated issue, since the ticket was reissued, yet it remained billed to the Bernsteins’ credit card.

Someone who purchased an item that was subsequently damaged cannot claim a refund from the seller unless the seller was guilty of deception (Bava Metzia 110a). Once the item has changed possession, any damage that occurs is the loss of its current owner and he cannot shift responsibility to the previous owner. This occurrence is called mazalo garam, his fortune caused this to happen (see, for example, Rashi to Bava Metzia 103a, s.v. azla lei). This means that each person has a mazel that will bring him certain benefits and losses during his lifetime, and one must learn to accept that this is Hashem’s will. Specifically, the Gemara refers to children, life and sustenance as three areas dependent on mazel (Moed Katan 28a). [One can daven to change one’s mazel, but that is not today’s topic (Meiri, Shabbos 156).] Thus, if the Adlers indeed owned the ticket, the resultant loss is theirs, and they should chalk it up to Hashem’s will. (Colloquially, we very accurately refer to this situation as being bashert.) Thus, what we need to determine is whether the Adlers had halachically taken possession of the ticket.

KINYAN

According to halacha, for property to change hands there must be not only the meeting of the minds of the buyer and the seller, but also the performance of an act, called a maaseh kinyan, that transfers the item into the possession of the buyer. Although both the buyer and the seller agreed to transact an item, it does not actually change possession until the maaseh kinyan transpires. Therefore, if the item is damaged after the two parties agreed to a deal, but before a maaseh kinyan transpired, the seller takes the loss since the item was still his when it became damaged. Determining the exact moment that the act of kinyan takes place and that therefore the item changed possession is therefore highly significant.

[It is important to note that, although a deal may not have been finalized without a kinyan, it is usually forbidden to back out once the two parties have made an agreement. This is based on the verse in Tzefaniah (3:13) which states that a Jew always fulfills his word (see also Pesachim 91a; Bava Metzia 106b). Someone who has a question whether he is bound to an agreement must ask a shaylah to find out whether he may abandon the deal.]

What act creates the kinyan? There is a vast halachic literature devoted to defining what exactly constitutes a maaseh kinyan and under which circumstances these kinyanim work. For example, the methods of transacting real estate are quite different from how one acquires chattel or food.

How does an airline ticket change possession? Obviously, there is no Mishnah or Gemara discussion teaching how one acquires an airline ticket.

In reality, we should first analyze, what exactly does one purchase when one buys an airline ticket? The ticket itself is only a piece of paper, and is even less if it is an e-ticket and has no intrinsic value.

What one is purchasing is the right to a seat on a flight, and the ticket is basically a receipt verifying the acquisition. If our analysis is correct, then the purchase of a non-refundable ticket is essentially buying a right to a particular flight. So we now have a halachic question: How does one acquire such rights and how does one transfer those rights to someone else?

SUTIMTA

One way of acquiring property is called sutimta, which means using a method of acquisition that is commonly used in the marketplace. Since society accepts this as a means of acquiring property, halacha recognizes it as a kinyan. For example, in the diamond trade, people consummate a deal by a handshake accompanied by the good wishes of “mazel ubracha.” Since this is the accepted method of transacting property, the kinyan is binding and halacha recognizes the deal as complete.

Based on the above, we can reach the following conclusion: When the Bernsteins instructed their travel agent to transfer the ticket to Aaron’s name, they were asking him to change the ownership of the right to the seat on that flight from Beryl to Aaron. Once the agent followed up on their instruction and reissued the ticket, the right to that seat became Aaron’s, and the Bernsteins are exempt from any fiscal responsibility. Although Aaron was unfortunately unable to utilize this right and it became void, there is no basis to making the Bernsteins pay for the ticket once it was transferred.

Therefore, the Adlers should accept that Aaron’s illness and the resultant loss of the ticket is Hashem’s will which we do not challenge. Since the loss of this money is attributed to mazel, had the ticket situation developed differently they would have suffered this loss in a different, perhaps more painful way, and they should not be upset at the Bernsteins for the financial loss.

Knowing how some people react to these situations, there is a good chance that the Adlers may be upset at the Bernsteins for what happened, even though this anger is unjustified. To avoid this result, I suggested that the Bernsteins offer some compensation to the Adlers for the ticket. It is very praiseworthy to spend some money and avoid bad feelings even if such expenditure is not required according to the letter of the law.

A Jew must realize that Hashem’s Torah and His awareness and supervision of our fate is all encompassing. Making this realization an integral part of our lives is the true benchmark of how His kedusha influences us personally.

*Although the story is true, all names have been changed.




Is a Will the Halachic Way?

Would Yitzchak (and ultimately klal Yisroel) have been better off had he written up, in advance, a will, clearly determining how he wanted his spiritual and temporal properties to be divided?

Should one write a will?

May one distribute one’s estate differently from the way the Torah instructs?

SHOULD A JEW WRITE A WILL?

Before answering this question, we should clarify what would happen if one left no legally binding will. For example, who becomes the legal guardian of one’s minor children? The law may prescribe a very different solution than what one would want to happen, with potentially catastrophic results. After discovering this possibility, the need to have a will usually becomes obvious.

Another question to resolve is what happens to one’s property if one leaves no will. Each state and country has different laws determining who takes possession of the property of a person who dies without having left a will. One thing is virtually certain: The division followed by a court will not follow halacha. Probate court will almost certainly award part of or the entire estate to someone who is not halachically entitled to it. Since there is no reason to assume that the halachic heirs should want to forgo their rightful ownership, someone will receive property that is not rightfully his or hers.

SOME YERUSHA BASICS

In order to understand why the wrong person ends up with the property, we must first understand who should be the halachic heir. Many people are surprised to discover that halacha distributes inheritance very differently from modern legal procedure.

According to Torah Law, property is bequeathed as follows: Sons or heirs of sons inherit everything, even if there are daughters (Bava Basra 115a). (Yes, this means that a granddaughter who is the daughter of an already deceased son inherits Grandpa’s estate ahead of Grandpa’s own daughter, an anomaly that the Gemara itself notes [Bava Basra 115b].)

If there is more than one son, the father’s bechor, firstborn son, receives a double portion in much of his father’s properties, but not his mother’s. This means that if there are three sons, including the firstborn, the property is divided into four portions, and the firstborn receives two. (Who qualifies as a bechor for these laws, and in which properties he does or does not receive an extra portion, are topics to be dealt with a different time.) If there are no sons or heirs of sons, then the daughters inherit, and if there are no surviving daughters, then their heirs do (Bava Basra 115a). If the deceased left no surviving descendants, the father of the deceased is the beneficiary of the entire estate (Bava Basra 108b). If the father has already passed on, then the paternal brothers inherit; if there are no brothers, their progeny are next in line. If no brothers or offspring survive, then paternal sisters and their children are the heirs. If the deceased’s father has no surviving progeny, then the deceased’s paternal grandfather and his descendants become the beneficiaries, again following the same pattern.

HUSBAND INHERITING

There is one major exception to these rules of yerusha – a husband inherits most assets left by his deceased wife. (Again, I will leave the exceptions for a different time.) This is true even if she has children, and even if her children are from a previous marriage. There are many ramifications of this rule, which can be the subject of a full-length halachic/legal treatise, and certainly reflect a very different hashkafah, perspective, on fiscal decision making than what is politically correct in today’s world.

DAUGHTERS

Although daughters are not heirs when there are sons, minor daughters receive support from their father’s estate. In addition, the estate provides for the wedding and related expenses of all unmarried daughters. Beis Din estimates the amount of these gifts based on the father’s means and how much he provided, while still alive, for the older sisters’ weddings (Kesubos 68a; cf., however, Tosafos, Kesubos 50b).

A widow does not inherit from her husband; instead, her late husband’s assets provide for her, until she shows interest in remarriage. At that time, she may collect her kesubah.

PATRILINEAL RELATIVES

Note that all halachic heirs follow the father’s line and not the mother’s (Bava Basra 108a; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 276:4). Thus, if an only child, whose father is also an only child, died, his heir will be a cousin on his paternal side, and not his closer relatives on his mother’s side.

Yankel (not his real name) once asked me the following shaylah: “My half-sister, who is my mother’s daughter, passed on, leaving all her property to her caretaker. The family members are contesting the will, and would like me to join their lawsuit. May I?”

I noted that there is no halachic point in his participating in this litigation, even if Beis Din authorized the suit. Even assuming that the will is indeed worthless, Yankel has no halachic claim to the money, since only relatives on the paternal side have halachic claim to the estate, and he is related on her mother’s side. Therefore, any properties he receives would actually belong to someone else. In this instance, bitachon must teach one that although civil law may consider the property to be yours, the ratzon Hashem is that to keep it is tantamount to stealing!

CHOOSING ONE’S HEIRS

According to civil law, a person may choose his heirs and thereby distribute his earthly wealth after he passes on. However, according to the Torah, a person cannot technically choose his heirs, nor distribute property after his demise. When a man dies, the Torah instructs who owns his assets according to the laws of yerusha presented previously.

If a person cannot create his own heir, does this mean that it is impossible to influence who eventually receives his assets? No, since there are several halachically acceptable methods of transferring property to someone who is not a halachic heir. Most of the methods take affect by creating some form of gift while the benefactor is still alive. Exactly how each method works, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of each approach, is a complex topic, beyond the range of this article. Certainly prior to finalizing a will drafted by an attorney, one should ask one’s rav whether there are any halachic concerns with the will’s goals, and what needs to be added (or changed) to validate it halachically. It is even better to speak to one’s rav before drafting the will for direction on some of the halachic issues involved.

Let us now examine the second question I raised above:

MAY ONE DISTRIBUTE ONE’S ESTATE DIFFERENTLY FROM WHAT THE TORAH INSTRUCTS?

Granted that one can change how one’s estate is to be divided, is it halachically correct to do so? Does the Torah require us to follow its yerusha laws, or are these merely default procedures if someone made no other provisions?

We can answer this question by analyzing the following incident:

Rav Papa was negotiating a shidduch for one of his sons (he had ten) with the daughter of Abba Soraah. When Rav Papa traveled to discuss the dowry Abba Soraah would provide, he was accompanied by Yehudah bar Mareimar, who declined to enter Abba Soraah’s house. Rav Papa invited Yehudah bar Mareimar to join him, but Yehudah bar Mareimar declined the invitation.

Rav Papa then asked Yehudah bar Mareimar, “Why do you not want to join me? Is it because you feel that my negotiating violates Shmuel’s ruling, ‘Do not be among those who transfer inheritance, even from a sinful son to a good one, since one never knows – perhaps the bad son will raise fine children?’” Following Shmuel’s ruling, one should certainly not transfer property to the daughter that rightfully belongs to the son. “However,” continued Rav Papa, “this is not a correct application of Shmuel’s rule, since there is another rabbinic ruling of Rabbi Yochanan quoting Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai that encourages people to provide substantial dowries for their daughters.”

Yehudah bar Mareimar responded, “Indeed Rabbi Yochanan ruled that we encourage men to provide their daughters with dowries — but we do not pressure them to do so” (Kesubos 52b- 53a).

We can derive several principles from this passage:

1. One should provide for one’s daughter in order to encourage her marriage, even when this reduces the amount available for inheritance.

2. One should not pressure someone to provide a substantive dowry for his daughter’s shidduch.

3. Although one can disinherit an heir, Chazal discourage this practice, even if the heir is an evil person, since he may have righteous children who should not be deprived of their just portion. One is certainly discouraged from transferring the inheritance to someone who is not a halachic heir at all.

The Shulchan Aruch codifies this last rule: “The Sages are displeased with someone who gives away his property to others and abandons his heirs, even if they do not treat him properly” (Choshen Mishpat 282:1; note comments of Sm’a, and Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #153).

The authorities dispute whether this prohibition applies only to the testator or includes even others who assist him in transferring the inheritance. According to the Chasam Sofer, a rav who teaches how to transfer inheritance violates this rabbinic prohibition! (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #153; cf. Shevet HaLevi 4:116, who quotes authorities who disagree.)

 

SHTAR CHATZI ZACHOR

An old custom, dating back hundreds of years, was to draft a shtar chatzi zachor, which provided daughters with half of what their brothers inherit. (The words shtar chatzi zachor mean a document providing half that of a male child.) Several early authorities approve this practice, even though it transfers property from the male heirs, because providing for one’s daughters enhances their chance of finding suitable shidduchin (Shu’t Maharam Mintz #47, quoted by Nachalas Shivah 21:4:2). Although Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, quoted in the above Gemara, encouraged providing only a dowry for one’s daughter and made no mention of inheritance, these poskim contend that knowing that she will eventually inherit also entices a potential groom. (However, note that Shu’t Maharam Rottenberg #998 disagrees with this approach, implying that he would object to the practice of shtar chatzi zachor.)

CONTEMPORARY PRACTICE

It is now common for wills to provide equally for all children, both sons and daughters, and to ignore the bechor’s double portion. Contemporary poskim suggest that one should follow whatever practice is necessary to avoid a machlokes caused by unrealized expectations, and advise asking a rav for direction (Gesher HaChayim, 1:8; MiDor LeDor pg. 36). Many authorities recommend that one set aside a small amount of property to be divided according to the laws of yerusha (based on Tashbeitz end of 3:147, quoted by Ketzos HaChoshen 282:2).

The Gesher HaChayim records a story of a talmid chacham who wanted his estate divided exactly as the Torah instructs, legally arranging that his bechor should receive a double portion and that only his sons, and not his daughters, receive inheritance. Unfortunately, the result of this distribution was a legacy of machlokes that created a tremendous chillul Hashem. For this reason, the Gesher HaChayim recommends that a person divide his estate among his children in a way that maintains shalom.

ABANDONING HEIRS

Other than the two reasons mentioned above, (1) encouraging daughters’ shidduchin (2) maintaining harmonious relationship among family members, halacha frowns strongly on disinheriting the rightful heirs in favor of those who are not, and disapproves of providing more for one heir at the expense of another (Rashbam, Bava Basra 133b). In order to explain this better, let us examine the following case:

Mr. Rubinstein, who has no children, would like to divide his estate equally among all his nephews and nieces. However, only some of his nephews are his halachic heirs, those who are sons of his brothers. The nephews who are sons of his sisters are not halachic heirs, nor are any of his nieces. If Mr. Rubinstein divides all his property among all his nephews and nieces evenly, he has violated Chazal’s concept of not transferring inheritance, since he has given away his halachic heirs’ portion to those who are not his heirs.

Note that in this case, the two reasons that permit transferring inheritance do not apply. Mr. Rubinstein is not obligated to provide for his nieces’ marriages nor is it likely that limiting his will to his halachic heirs will create a family dispute.

May Mr. Rubinstein give most of his estate to his nieces and sisters’ sons, as long as he bequeaths some according to the laws of yerusha? The halachic authorities debate this question, some maintaining that one may give a large part of one’s estate to those who are not halachic heirs, provided that each heir receives some inheritance. According to this opinion, Mr. Rubinstein may dispose of his property any way he chooses, provided he leaves part of the estate according to the laws of yerusha.

Other authorities prohibit any action that deprives the halachic heirs of their rightful portion (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #151). Furthermore, it should be noted that the prohibition against transferring inheritance applies even when the heirs are not his sons (see Shu’t Chasam Sofer Choshen Mishpat #151; Aruch HaShulchan, Choshen Mishpat 282:3; Shu’t Shevet HaLevi 4:116).

TZEDAKAH

Is it considered abandoning one’s heirs if one bequeaths sizable amounts of one’s estate to tzedakah?

Some authorities contend that it is not, and one may leave even one’s entire fortune to tzedakah. The reason for this approach is very interesting.

A person has no obligation to acquire assets in order to fulfill the mitzvah of yerusha. Furthermore, one has the right to use up all one’s financial resources, while alive, in any way one chooses and leave nothing to his heirs. After all, as owner of the property he is free to do with it as he sees fit.

Donating tzedakah, reasons the Chasam Sofer, is using money for oneself, since all the merits accrue to the donor. Just as one may use his resources for himself however one chooses, so may one donate all the resources that he will no longer need to tzedakah, without violating the prohibition of transferring inheritance. The Chasam Sofer reasons that this is equivalent to the testator keeping the property for himself, since he receives all the reward for the tzedakah he gives (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #151). (From this perspective, you can take it with you!!)

However, although some earlier authorities (Rama, Yoreh Deah 249:1) concur with the Chasam Sofer’s conclusions, others contend that one should limit his tzedakah bequests to one third or one half of one’s assets (Rabbi Akiva Eiger ad loc., quoting Sheiltos; Chachmas Odom 144:12). Still others feel that one should not give substantial amounts of tzedakah at the expense of the heirs, unless the heirs are acting inappropriately (Shu’t Maharam Rottenberg #998).

CONCLUSION

It is important to realize that one’s legal rights and responsibilities are not governed by secular law. A Torah Jew understands that Hashem’s Torah is all-encompassing, and that it directs every aspect of one’s life. Thus, one should discuss with one’s rav all aspects of the important shaylah — how to draw one’s will.




Get Rid of the Stuff!

or

The Vanishing Importer and Other Tales

Dovid calls me with following shaylah:
”Several years ago, Yonasan asked permission to store some items in my basement for a few months. The items are still in my basement, and I have no idea where Yonasan now lives. I have tried to contact him without any success. How do I get rid of his stuff? I need the space for other things.”

People have often asked me this or similar questions, where someone ends up with someone else’s unwanted property on their premises. The issue is that two people’s rights are in conflict with one another. On the one hand, Dovid has a right to regain the use of his basement; yet, on the other hand, we cannot ignore Yonasan’s ownership rights.

We will see that although the halachos in these cases are complicated, we will be able to understand some of the rules involved.

In order to answer Dovid’s shaylah, we need to determine several halachic factors:

1. Was Dovid originally responsible for taking care of Yonasan’s items?

2. Assuming he was once responsible, is he still responsible?

3. If we assume that he is no longer responsible, or was never responsible, may he remove the items from his premises? What may he do with them if he removes them?

The Tanna’im (Bava Kamma 47) dispute whether or not granting someone permission to place belongings on my premises makes me automatically a shomer chinam, an unpaid watchman. The Sages contend that when I tell someone that he can place his items in my yard, the unstated assumption is that I am accepting responsibility for the items. If the item is subsequently lost or stolen through the homeowner’s negligence, he must pay for it, even though he was not paid to guard the item. Rebbe disagrees, contending that permitting someone to place items on my property is not equivalent to accepting responsibility for them.

Most halachic authorities conclude that if one offered to store items in his house, he has assumed some level of responsibility, but if he offered to store them in his yard, he has not assumed responsibility (Shach, Choshen Mishpat 291:8; cf., however Machanei Efrayim, Shomrim #4, who rules that he is not responsible in the house either). Thus, when Yonasan placed his items in Dovid’s basement, Dovid became a shomer chinam on those items, and is obligated to pay if he is negligent in taking care of them. As a result, if Dovid left the house unlocked one day and someone entered and stole Yonasan’s property, Dovid would be obligated to compensate Yonasan. By the way, Dovid could avoid this responsibility by simply telling Yonasan that although he may place items in Dovid’s house, Dovid is assuming no responsibility and is not a shomer.

HOW LONG DOES DOVID REMAIN RESPONSIBLE?

In our case, Yonasan asked permission to store his items in Dovid’s house “for a few months.” Assuming that Dovid really believed that Yonasan would remove his items at that time, he is no longer a shomer when the time is over and is no longer responsible for negligent damages (Machanei Efrayim, Shomrim #19). However, this does not mean that Dovid can now remove Yonasan’s items and place them on the street, because that would be considered as damaging Yonasan’s property, which is prohibited.

Let us compare this case to a fascinating anecdote of the Gemara:

THE CASE OF THE HAPLESS LADY

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 101b) relates the following episode. A businessman, whom we will call Mr. Wine, purchased a shipload of kosher wine and could not find a place to store it. When he asked a local woman, Ms. Storage, if he could rent warehouse space, she was initially unwilling to rent him the space, and only agreed after he consented to marry her. After this “marriage of convenience,” Mr. Wine promptly divorced Ms. Storage. She retaliated by selling some of the wine and using the proceeds to hire porters to move the wine into the street. When Mr. Wine summoned Ms. Storage to a din Torah for selling his wine to pay for the portage, Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, ruled that since he tricked her into storing his goods, he had no monetary claim against her, and that she indeed had the legal right to remove the wine from her premises at his expense. As we will see, it is unclear whether she could remove the wine from her premises if this would cause the wine to be stolen or damaged.

In the above situation, because Mr. Wine discovered immediately what she had done, he suffered no further loss. Would Ms. Storage have been liable to pay if the wine was stolen before Mr. Wine discovered that it was in the street?

The Rosh rules that although Ms. Storage may remove the wine from her premises, she is liable for any loss that occurs until she notifies Mr. Wine that she has removed the wine. Therefore, the Rama rules that she must notify Mr. Wine before removing his wine from her premises.

Obviously, this ruling places Ms. Storage in an unenviable position if Mr. Wine leaves town and cannot be contacted. Although he tricked her into storing her goods, she cannot remove his items and place them where they may be damaged.

Not all authorities agree with the Rosh’s opinion. The Taz (Choshen Mishpat 319) contends that if someone stored property on your premises without your permission and it is in a place that you need, you may remove his property without being concerned about the loss he suffers as a result. (This is based on his understanding of the Rambam; note that some other poskim interpret the Rambam differently.) According to the Taz’s approach, Ms. Storage could have placed the wine in the street without notifying Mr. Wine, without any financial responsibility or risk. The line of reasoning behind the Taz’s approach is interesting.

The Gemara (Bava Kamma 27b) rules that “avid inish dina linafshei,” a person has the right to protect his own property. Thus if a person or his animal is damaging my property, I may use necessary force to remove him or his animal from my property.

Similarly, the Taz contends that one may remove items placed in my property if I do not want them there. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:56) appears to disagree with the Taz, contending that one does not have the right to remove someone else’s property and place it in the street. Rav Moshe’s responsum is in the context of a different, interesting case.

THE CASE OF THE VANISHING IMPORTER

A distributor asked Rav Moshe the following shaylah: “An importer/supplier asked me to store some merchandise for a couple of months and I agreed; but I neglected to get his address and phone number. A year later, the importer returned, very apologetically explaining that he was delayed and thought he would return sooner. In the middle of the conversation, the importer said, ‘I must take care of something. I’ll be back in a few minutes.’ He disappeared once again and has not returned since. It is now months later and I need to make room for my own merchandise. What can I do with his property?”

Rav Moshe compares the distributor’s predicament to the Case of the Hapless Lady. He contends that even in that case, one may not remove the wine to a place where it could be stolen unless one first notifies the owner. He further concludes that if Ms. Storage cannot locate Mr. Wine, she may not move his wine to the street. However, Rav Moshe rules that she could move his wine to an alternative warehouse and sell some of the wine to pay the portage and rent. Similarly, Rav Moshe rules that in the Case of the Vanishing Importer, the distributor may sell some of the importer’s goods to pay the moving costs and rent a different warehouse.

The Pischei Choshen (Hilchos Pikadon:7:ftn6) disagrees with Rav Moshe, contending that instead of selling some of the merchandise to rent storage space, one should sell all of the merchandise and hold the money for the importer’s return. (Certain other details must be followed in carrying out this sale.) Both approaches assume that one may not sell the importer’s merchandise if the distributor has available storage space, but dispute which approach is better if the distributor has no available space. Even though the importer took unfair advantage, the distributor may not treat the importer’s possessions with disregard.

Rav Moshe’s dispute with the Pischei Choshen what to do with the importer’s goods hinges on which of the following two rulings applies in our case. In the Case of the Hapless Lady that we mentioned above, the Rambam rules that although Ms. Storage need not notify Mr. Wine, it is commendable (midas chasidus) for her to inform Beis Din that she will be removing his wine from her premises. The Beis Din then proceeds to sell some of the wine and thereby pay for the portage and storage. Rav Moshe explains that Ms. Storage may do this herself if she wants, but that if she does not want to bother, all she is required to do is to notify Beis Din that she will be removing the wine from her premises. If Mr. Wine cannot be located, either Beis Din or Ms. Storage may remove his wine to a secure warehouse, paying for the portage and storage from the merchandise.

The Pischei Choshen contends that one sells the merchandise to pay rent only when its owner knew he would be paying rent until he returns — therefore he has no major unexpected loss from using an alternative warehouse. However, this is qualitatively different from the Vanishing Importer who may not have realized that he would be paying rent. The Pischei Choshen therefore compares the Case of the Vanishing Importer to a different Talmudic discussion where a shomer is responsible for produce whose owner is unaware that it has begun to spoil. In this case, since the owner will suffer from an unexpected major loss, the shomer sells the items under the supervision of a Beis Din to try salvaging whatever he can, and then the shomer holds the money for the owner until his return (Bava Metzia 38a). (The halacha is that the shomer may borrow the money, obviously interest free, until the owner returns [Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 292:19].)

The Pischei Choshen contends that since the distributor is not obligated to store the importer’s items at a loss, and there is no place to store them for free, we are left with two possible courses of action, one of which we will eliminate:

1. Rent a storage facility paid for by gradually selling the merchandise. This will eventually erode the remaining value.

2. Sell the merchandise, thus recouping some value for the importer.

Since we cannot contact the importer, or know when he will return, the Pischei Choshen elects the second option as the correct halachic approach.

In Dovid’s original case, Yonasan had asked him to store his items for a few months, a timetable that passed several years ago. Thus, one can compare his predicament to the case of the Vanishing Importer, which would allow Dovid to follow one of the suggested procedures to save Yonasan from a loss: either to sell some of the property and thereby rent storage space (Rav Moshe’s approach), or to sell it all and hold the money (Pischei Choshen’s approach).

However, this is true only if the loss Yonasan would suffer is because Dovid must have the space available for some other purpose. If Dovid is simply annoyed by the cluttered basement, he has no halachic basis with which to remove Yonasan’s property.

Another complication usually occurs in these situations: If Dovid did not specify the length of time he is lending use of his premises, he is presumably still the shomer of Yonasan’s property and is still liable for any negligence, and certainly would be liable if he damaged the property. This is qualitatively different from the Case of Hapless Lady and the Case of the Vanishing Importer, where the homeowner is not a shomer.

The Pischei Choshen (Hilchos Pikadon:7:ftn5) asks whether in a case like this Dovid is required to be a shomer forever.

I attempted to find a source that would relieve Dovid of his responsibilities in this very common case. I have thus far been unsuccessful. The closest parallel I have found is the following case:

Yehudah agreed to be a shomer on someone’s property; now he wants to leave town and cannot take the item with him. What does he do? The Rambam (Hilchos She’eilah 7:12) rules that agreeing to watch an item does not make you a prisoner in your home; you have a right to leave. What does Yehudah do? He brings the item to Beis Din which then assigns it to the care of a reputable person.

However, this ruling is applicable only if the shomer wants to leave town and can no longer supervise the item. I have found no other halachic source that discusses how one can terminate one’s shmirah of an item when the shomer remains in town, and the owner is unaware that one wants to terminate responsibility.

THE CASE OF THE CARRY-ON LUGGAGE

This leads us to the following shaylah. What is the halacha in the following situation? At the airport gate, you agree to watch someone’s carry-on bag so he can use the comfort facilities. Forty-five minutes later, your plane is boarding, and the bag owner has not reappeared. Must I miss my flight because I agreed to watch his bag? What do I do with the bag?

In this carry-on case, I think one can assume that when someone asks me to watch an item at an airport gate, he knows that I can watch the item for only a brief period of time. If one needs to leave and the bag owner has not returned, I would recommend alerting airport personnel and letting them decide what to do, and at the same time leaving a note where you were sitting. Abandoning the bag will probably cause it to be stolen or impounded and destroyed by airport security, and I suspect that airport Lost and Found is also not a good alternative.

By now, I think we have become convinced of the necessity for clarifying our responsibilities in advance when someone asks us to watch their item or leave something at our house. Of course, realizing the complications that may result should not cause us to reconsider doing chesed for people; simply, we should be certain to do it in such a way that we do not create unnecessary entanglements.




What Are the Basic Rules of the Jewish Calendar?

clip_image002

 

Thirty Days has September, April, June, November, Tishrei, Shvat, Nissan, Sivan, Av and sometimes Cheshvan[1] and Kislev. Yet a reading of Mishnah Rosh Hashanah implies that whether a month has 29 days or 30 depends on when the witnesses saw the new moon and testified in Beis Din early enough to declare the thirtieth day Rosh Chodesh. In addition, the Gemara[2] notes that Elul could be thirty days long, something that cannot happen in our calendar. How did our empirical calendar become so rigid and predictable in advance? Come with me as we explore the history and foundations of the Jewish calendar!

The Torah (Shemos 12:2) commands the main Beis Din of the Jewish people, or a Beis Din specially appointed by them, to declare Rosh Chodesh upon accepting the testimony of witnesses who observed the new moon (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 1:1, 7; 5:1). The purpose of having eyewitnesses was not to notify the Beis Din of its occurrence; the Beis Din had extensive knowledge of astronomy and already knew exactly when and where the new moon would appear and what size and shape it would have (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 2:4; Ritva on the Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 18a). The moon’s location and speed is constantly influenced by many factors, but the wise scholars of the tribe of Yissachar calculated where and when it would appear.

The Molad

As the moon orbits earth, we on earth observe it as passing through its various phases, from the very smallest crescent until full moon, and then shrinking until it disappears completely. This monthly cycle occurs because the moon has no light of its own, and only reflects sunlight back to earth. As the moon travels around the earth, the angle at which it reflects light changes. This evidences itself in the moon’s changing phases. When the moon is on the side of the earth away from the sun, we see the full moon, because it is now at an angle whereby the entire side is reflecting light to us. However, when the moon is on the side of earth nearest the sun, we see no reflection of its light at all, and that is the point of every month when the moon disappears from earthly view. The molad is the point at which the moon crosses the plane between the earth and the sun, which means it is the beginning of a new cycle, called in English the new moon and in technical jargon the point of conjunction.

From the time of the actual molad you can calculate when the moon will become visible. Chazal always kept secret how one can predict when the new moon was to appear so as to avoid false witnesses abusing the knowledge of this information (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh, 11:4).

The purpose of having eyewitnesses was not to notify the Beis Din of its occurrence; rather, the Torah required the Beis Din to wait for witnesses to determine whether the 30th day (of the previous month) would be the last day of the old month or the first day of a new month. If no witnesses to the new moon testified on the 30th day, then the new month does not begin until the 31st day, regardless of the astronomic calculations (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 24a). Thus, prior to the establishment of our current “permanent” calendar, any month could be either 29 or 30 days, dependent on when the new moon appeared and whether witnesses arrived in Beis Din to testify about this phenomenon.

By the way, we should be aware that the above description follows the opinion of the Rambam, that the preferred and original mitzvah is to declare Rosh Chodesh based on the testimony of witnesses. However, there are several early authorities, including Rav Saadyah Gaon and Rabbeinu Chananel, who hold that the primary mitzvah is to declare Rosh Chodesh on the basis of the calculations, and that use of witnesses was implemented because of certain circumstantial issues.

According to either approach, the calendar printers could not go to press until the Beis Din had declared Rosh Chodesh, which probably explains why calendar manufacture in those times was a difficult business in which to turn a profit. Perhaps this is why organizations mailed out so few fundraising calendars in the days of Chazal!

There is another commandment of the Torah – that Pesach must always occur in the Spring (Devarim 16:1). This seemingly innocuous obligation actually requires considerable manipulation of the calendar, since the months, derived from the word moon, are determined by the length of time from one new moon to the next, which is a bit more than 29 1/2 days. However, the year and its seasons are determined by the relative location of the sun to the earth, which is a bit less than 365 1/4 days. By requiring Pesach to always be in the spring, the Torah required that the calendar could not be exclusively twelve lunar months, since this would result in Pesach wandering its way through the solar year and occurring in all seasons.[3]

Among contemporary calendars, most make no attempt to accommodate the solar year and the lunar month. What we refer to as the common secular calendar, or the Gregorian calendar, is completely based on the sun. Although the year is broken into months, the use of the word “months” is borrowed from its original meaning and has been significantly changed since the months have no relationship to any cycle of the moon. Most of the secular months have 31 days, while the lunar cycle is only about 29 1/2 days, and even those secular months that have 30 days do not relate to any phase or change in the moon. Similarly, the length of February as a month of either 28 or 29 days has nothing to do with the moon. Thus, although the word month should correspond to the moon, the Western calendar is purely a solar one, with a borrowed unit “month” given a meaning that distorts its origins.

The Moslem calendar is purely a lunar calendar of twelve lunar months, some 29 days and some 30, but has no relationship to the solar year. In truth, a pure lunar calendar has no real “year,” since a year is based on the relative locations of the sun and the earth and the resultant seasons, and the Moslem year completely ignores seasons. The word “year” is used in the Moslem sense only as a basis for counting longer periods of time, but has no relationship to the sun. Thus the Moslem “year” is only 354 or 355 days long — almost 11 days shorter than a true solar year. Therefore, a Moslem who tells you that he is 65 years old is really closer to 63 according to a solar year count. He has counted 65 years that are at least ten days shorter. I trust that Guinness takes these factors into account when computing longevity, and insurance companies realize this when calculating actuarial tables.

To review: the Moslem calendar accurately tracks the moon and the months, but has no relationship to a true year, and the Western secular calendar is fairly accurate at tracking the year and its seasons, but has no relationship to the moon and its phases.

It is noteworthy that although the Moslem “year” does not correspond at all to a solar or western year, it closely corresponds to our Jewish year in a “common” year which is only twelve months long, and the Moslem month follows closely the Jewish calendar month. (We will soon explain why there is sometimes a discrepancy of a day or two.) Thus, for three years recently, Ramadan, the Moslem holy month, corresponded to our month of Elul, although this year Ramadan falls in Av. It is accurate to say that the Moslem year “wanders” its way through the seasons as it takes 33 years until a specific month returns to the same corresponding time in the solar year, and in the interim the month has visited each of the other seasons for several consecutive years. Thus, Ramadan will not coincide with Elul again this generation, but falls in Av for three years, with Tamuz for two years, and then with Sivan, etc.

However, when Hashem commanded us to create a calendar, He insisted that we use the moon to define the months, and yet also keep our months in sync with the seasons, which are dependent on the sun; to determine the dates of the Yomim Tovim. The only way to do this is to use the Jewish calendar method of occasionally adding months – thereby creating 13 month years, which we call “leap years,” to offset the almost 11 day difference between twelve lunar months and a solar year. The result of this calendar is that although each date does not fall exactly on the same “solar date” every year, it falls within a fairly close range relative to the solar year.

Who determined which year has thirteen months?

The original system was that the main Beis Din (also known as the Sanhedrin) appointed a smaller special Beis Din to determine whether the year should have an extra month added. This special Beis Din took into consideration:

1) Astronomical data, such as: When Pesach will fall out relative to the vernal equinox (the Spring day on which day and night are closest to being equal in length).

2) Agricultural data, such as: How ripe is the barley? How large are the newborn lambs and pigeons?

3) Weather: Is the rainy season drawing to a close? Is it a famine year?

4) Convenience – or more specifically, the halachic inconvenience of creating a leap year: Shemittah was never made into a leap year, and the year before shemittah usually was.

5) Infrastructure, such as: In what condition were the highways and bridges.

All of these points influenced whether the thirteenth month, the extra Adar, would be added.[4] When this system was in place, which was from the time of Moshe and Yehoshua until almost three hundred years after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the main Beis Din sent written messages notifying outlying communities of the decision to create a leap year and the reasons for their decision.[5]

By the way, after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the main Beis Din was not located in Yerushalayim, but wherever the Nasi of the Jewish people resided, as long as it was in Eretz Yisrael. This included several other communities at various times of Jewish history, including Teverya, Yavneh, and Shafraam.[6] Indeed, during this period sometimes the special Beis Din met outside the land of Israel — should the head of the Beis Din be in the Diaspora and there be no one of his stature remaining in Eretz Yisrael.[7]

This explains how the calendar is intended to be calculated.  Why and how our current calendar came to be will be discussed in a future article.


[1] Although the correct name of the month is Marcheshvan, we will follow the colloquial use of calling it Cheshvan.

[2] Rosh Hashanah 19b, 20a

[3] Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 4:1

[4] Sanhedrin 11a- 12a

[5] Sanhedrin 11b; Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 4:17

[6] Rosh Hashanah 31b

[7] Berachos 63a; Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 1:8




When There Is a Will, the Relatives May Complain

Yonasan, who was originally adopted by non-observant parents, called me with the following shaylah:

“My parents, meaning the couple who adopted me, eventually divorced, and later my father remarried, although there was a halachic problem with his second marriage. My adoptive father was a kohen, and his second wife, Martha, was a divorcee. Recently, my father passed away. My father’s final will, which was drafted when he was ill and very dependent on Martha, was completely different from his previous will, and left virtually all his property to her. Uncle Jack, my adoptive father’s brother, is very upset about the will, believing that this was certainly not my father’s intention, and that it can be overturned in court. This would make me the legal heir to my father’s estate, although halachically, I am not his son. Uncle Jack wants to file a lawsuit over the matter; however, he has no legal recourse to do so, since the civil law does not consider him my father’s heir. May I file a lawsuit to overturn the will?”

This shaylah is indeed as complicated halachically as it sounds, and actually involves three different areas of halacha:

I. Who is the heir?

II. What is the halachic status of a will?

III. May one file the lawsuit in secular court?

In addition, there is a fourth halachic issue that must be addressed, a question of yibum, which I will discuss later.

I will explain each area of halacha mentioned above in order to explain the procedure that I suggested that Yonasan follow.

I. Who is the heir?

Although civil law considers Yonasan the child of his adoptive parents for all matters, including his being their legal heir, the adoption did not make him their biological son. Indeed, the Gemara states that someone who raises a child is considered as if he had given birth to him;[1] however, the adopted child does not inherit, unless he receives the property as some form of gift, as I will explain.

Thus, although Yonasan is his father’s legal heir (from a civil law perspective, if we ignore the will), halacha does not consider him an heir automatically, unless his father gave him the property in a halachically correct will. Since the existing will made other accommodations, Yonasan receives nothing from his father’s estate halachically, neither as an automatic heir nor as the receiver of gifts through his father’s will. Thus, Yonasan cannot make a financial claim against his stepmother for his father’s estate, since it does not belong to him. If the will is valid, then the property belongs to Martha, his stepmother. If the will is invalid, the property belongs to Uncle Jack.

Why Uncle Jack?

If a man dies without biological children and makes no halachic provisions for his estate, then his closest heir is his father, who, in this case, is already deceased. The next closest relative is any surviving brother. In this case, there is one biological brother of the deceased, Uncle Jack. Thus, he is the halachic heir of Yonasan’s father, and if indeed the will is halachically invalid, the property halachically belongs to him, although he may not be able to take possession of it according to civil law.

Halachically, a woman does not inherit from her husband as next of kin. Instead, the Torah gives her the rights of the kesubah, provides that she may live in her late husband’s house and guarantees her income and support from his property. Martha is entitled to these financial rights if she was halachically married to Yonasan’s father, even if the marriage fell into the category of a halachically prohibited marriage. (One method whereby Martha and Yonasan’s father could have been halachically married in a prohibited marriage would be if they had deceived an Orthodox rabbi, dishonestly getting his agreement to perform their ceremony. There are others.) Thus, if Martha proves that she was halachically married to Yonasan’s father, she will be entitled to this support, even though she was a divorcee and he was a kohen.[2]

II. Is the will valid?

According to civil law, a person has the right to choose his heirs and thereby to choose to whom he distributes his earthly wealth after passing on. However, according to the Torah, a person does not have the ability to choose his heirs, nor can he arrange to give away property after death. When a man dies, the Torah instructs us how to distribute his assets, through the laws of yerusha.

How can someone leave his property to his adopted child?

There are methods whereby one can transfer his property to his adopted child, or to anyone else, for that matter, who is not a halachic heir. One method is to draw up a will, and then make a kinyan that transfers possession of the bequeathed property to the beneficiary of the will. (I mention this method as a possible illustration, since it does not work in all situations.) This can be done in a way that the person wishing to bequeath his property maintains ownership over it in the meantime and leaves him the right to change his bequest later. Some poskim, albeit a minority, contend that a legally valid will alone constitutes a kinyan. These authorities reason that arranging a legally valid will, knowing that the government will transfer property as a result, is halachically equivalent to making a kinyan.[3] However, most poskim maintain that a standard civil will is not halachically valid.

Yonasan’s father was not observant and did not have his lawyer make the will halachically valid. (Unfortunately, many observant Jews do not attend to this important matter either. Just as it is important for a person to have a will drawn up, it is important to make sure that it is halachically valid.) Therefore, many poskim would consider Uncle Jack to be the halachic heir of the estate, yet he cannot file a civil suit concerning the property, since he is not an interested party according to civil law. But before we even get to this step in the discussion, we need to discuss whether the Torah permits Yonasan or Uncle Jack to sue in civil court.

III. Arka’os, the prohibition against filing a suit in a secular court.

A Jew may not litigate against a fellow Jew in civil court,[4] even if both parties agree.[5] This is known as the prohibition against using arka’os. Someone who uses court systems not sanctioned by the Torah performs a chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s Name, because he demonstrates that he feels that G-d’s Torah cannot resolve his financial matters.[6] In the words of the Rambam,[7] “Whoever has his case judged by non-Jewish laws or courts, even if their laws are the same (as the Torah), is a rasha. It is as if he blasphemed and raised his hand against the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu.”[8] Someone who brought litigation to a secular court is invalidated from being a chazzan for Yomim Nora’im.[9] In addition, he will probably transgress the violation of stealing (gezel), since the property he receives is not his according to halacha.

What if the Other Party Refuses to Go to Beis Din?

This problem is, unfortunately, neither uncommon nor recent, and apparently occurred even at the time of the Gemara.[10] If this happens, the halachically correct procedure is for the plaintiff to have beis din summon the defendant. If the defendant fails to appear in beis din or indicates that he will not appear, the beis din authorizes the plaintiff to sue in civil court.[11] Under these circumstances, the plaintiff has not violated the prohibition of going to arka’os, since he acted according to halacha.

(It should be noted that even if someone is authorized to sue in civil court, he is only entitled to receive what halacha entitles him. It could happen that the civil court awards him more money than he is entitled to according to halacha. Therefore, he should ask a posek after winning the litigation how much of the award he may keep. The balance he would be required to return to the other party.)

Applying these rules to our case means that Uncle Jack may file a suit in beis din against Martha. Although Uncle Jack would like Yonasan to sue in civil courts, Yonasan may not sue according to halacha for two different reasons:

(1) One may not sue in civil court without permission from beis din.

(2) Yonasan has no halachic grounds to claim his adopted father’s estate since he is halachically not an heir.

Does this mean that this was the end of the case?

No. Yonasan explained to Uncle Jack the halachic background to the shaylah. Uncle Jack feels strongly that Martha took unfair advantage of his ill brother, which is the reason why he and his attorney feel that the will can be easily overturned in civil court. Uncle Jack then asked Yonasan if there is any way that Yonasan could proceed with the claim.

Harsha’ah

Enter harsha’ah, which is the halachic equivalent of a power of attorney, into the picture. A harsha’ah allows someone who is not an interested party in the litigation to sue as if he is an interested party. In this instance, Uncle Jack, as the halachic heir, can authorize Yonasan by means of a harsha’ah to sue Martha in beis din. If Martha ignores the summons or indicates that she will not respond to it, the beis din authorizes Yonasan and Uncle Jack to pursue the matter in civil court. The court will not accept Uncle Jack as a plaintiff against the will, since they do not recognize him as the heir. Although the court does not recognize Uncle Jack’s claim, Yonasan may now sue in civil court, based on the beis din’s authorization. Halachically, the basis of the civil suit is to save Uncle Jack the money that is his, even though neither the civil court nor Uncle Jack himself accepts that the money is his.

At this point in the discussion, Yonasan e-mailed me a further question:

“Dear Rav Kaganoff,

“In the event that my uncle does choose, with permission from a beis din, to sue my father’s widow in civil court, *should* I or merely *may* I act on his behalf?”

Indeed, this is a difficult question. In general, saving someone’s money is a mitzvah, and therefore, if someone sued in beis din and was ignored, it is a mitzvah to help him save his money in civil court, providing that this approach was properly authorized by beis din. This act of chesed is included under the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning a lost object to its proper owner.

In our instance, I was less certain if this is considered hashavas aveidah, since Uncle Jack does not consider the money his and is only planning to give it to Yonasan. Is Yonasan required to assist in helping Uncle Jack claim the money, knowing that Uncle Jack will probably assume that it is Yonasan’s and give it to him? Furthermore, since there might be poskim who feel that the money is legitimately Martha’s, one could certainly rely on their opinions to rule that it is not a requirement for him to be involved in the litigation. Thus, there are two different considerations as to why he may not be considered “saving someone’s money”:

(1) Can you say that he is saving someone else’s money, when that person intends to give it to him?

(2) According to some opinions, the money may not be Uncle Jack’s, but Martha’s. Although he is permitted to follow the opinion that the money is Uncle Jack’s, is he required to?

Another consideration: Chalitzah

At this point in the discussion, I introduced a new topic to Yonasan, that of the mitzvah of chalitzah. This requires some explanation. If a man dies without having biological children, there is a mitzvah for his brother to perform a procedure called chalitzah, which permits the widow to remarry. In addition, the chalitzah is a tremendous tikun neshamah for the departed. The mitzvah applies even if the widow is no longer of child-bearing age, and even if the couple married after she was beyond child-bearing age.

Many people do not realize that, if a couple has adopted children, but no biological children, the mitzvah of chalitzah still applies. Since Yonasan’s father had no biological children, his widow (assuming that they were halachically married, as she claims) is a yevamah, who requires chalitzah from Yonasan’s uncle to permit her to remarry.

I quote my letter to Yonasan:

“If your father’s marriage to his last wife was halachically valid, then there is a requirement/mitzvah for your uncle to perform chalitzah,[12] even if your father’s widow has no intention of remarrying and is not observant.”

Yonasan replied:

“I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me.  Question, though — even if they did get married with chuppah and kiddushin, she was a grusha, and he a kohen, so the marriage was forbidden.  He claimed to have asked a rabbi, who permitted the marriage on the basis that since he was disabled, he would not be allowed to perform the avodah, even if the Beis HaMikdash was standing. I did not think this is correct [indeed it is not], but I didn’t see any point in making an issue of it.  Was he right?  Assuming that his marriage was halachically unacceptable. Would that in any way impact on chalitzah?”

To which I replied:

“There is absolutely no halachic basis to any of the reasons he told you to permit this marriage. I presume that he mentioned these reasons to relieve his own conscience, and that he never asked a shaylah; halachically, he was prohibited from marrying a divorcee.

“A halacha-abiding rabbi would not perform such a ceremony, unless he was unaware either that your father was a kohen or that his wife was a grusha. However, even if there had been no proper halachic ceremony, they might have been considered married according to halacha, particularly since they considered themselves married. Thus, although this marriage was forbidden, there may be a requirement to perform chalitzah. The mitzvah of chalitzah applies even in the case of a kohen who marries a divorcee.[13] Is there anyone where they live knowledgeable enough to arrange this for them?”

Yonasan responded to my inquiry:

“There are some very prominent talmidei chachomim living near where both my uncle and my stepmother live.  However, they live a considerable distance from one another. I doubt that the widow is aware of the need for a chalitzah; I also doubt that she’ll object to it if it’s made easy for her. My uncle is, however, totally irreligious. How would I get him to agree to it and to travel the distance involved? He is unlikely to drop everything and fly to where she is to perform what he would see as an unimportant religious ceremony to help out a woman with whom he is upset.  What if he were to appoint someone else as a shaliach over the phone?  Would that be acceptable?”

To which I responded,

“Unfortunately, chalitzah cannot be performed through shelichus (agency). It sounds as if the most likely way for this to happen is to wait until a time that you know that they will be near one another  and then plan carefully how to present it to them. Alternatively, simply mention to them that chalitzah is a big tikun neshamah for your father, whom they both liked (I presume), and ask if they can keep it in mind in future travel plans.

“By the way, the mitzvah is your uncle’s mitzvah to perform, not hers.”

As of this writing, I do not know if Yonasan decided to proceed with the litigation over the will, and I presume that no action has resulted concerning the chalitzah. However, this situation affords us the opportunity to discuss halachos with which many people are unfamiliar, and it provides a tremendous opportunity to make people aware of a number of different mitzvos.

It is important to realize that legal rights and responsibilities are never governed by secular law. A Torah Jew realizes that Hashem’s Torah is all-encompassing, and that halacha directs every aspect of one’s life. Thus, halacha governs all financial aspects of our lives, and one should be careful to ask shaylos about one’s business dealings.

Indeed, through this entire halachic conversation, I was exceedingly impressed by Yonasan’s ability not to be swayed by financial considerations, but to be certain that what he did would be the perfectly correct approach halachically. In fact, he was shortly thereafter awarded a tremendous financial windfall – no doubt, for his adherence to halacha, despite whatever financial temptation existed.


[1] Megillah 13a; Sanhedrin 19b

[2] Mishnah Kesubos 100b

[3] Shu’t Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 1:104

[4] Gittin 88b

[5] Ramban, beginning of Parshas Mishpatim

[6] Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim #3

[7] Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:7

[8] See also Rashi’s comments on Shemos 21:1

[9] Mishnah Berurah 53:82

[10] Bava Kama 92b, as explained by Rosh

[11] Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 26:2

[12] Mishnah Yevamos 20a

[13] Mishnah Yevamos 20a




Halachic History of Copyright

One of the curses recorded in this week’s parsha is against someone who moves the border. In halachic terms, hasagas gevul, moving borders also includes infringes on someone’s property rights.

Does a publisher have rights protecting him so that he has the opportunity to recoup his investment? Assuming that such rights exist, do they apply in all cases, or only if it is a new publication? For how long are his rights protected?

Does the Torah have a concept of intellectual property rights, meaning that someone who creates or invents an item is owner of his invention?

WHAT RIGHTS DOES THE PUBLISHER HAVE?

One of the earliest published responsa on this subject deals with a very interesting sixteenth century case. One of the gedolei Yisrael of the time, the Maharam of Padua, Italy, entered a partnership with a non-Jewish publisher in Venice to produce a new edition of Rambam. Maharam invested a huge amount of time checking and correcting the text for this edition, included notes of his own, and apparently also invested significant amounts of his own money in the undertaking. A competing publisher, also a non-Jew, produced an edition of Rambam (without Maharam’s corrections and notes) at a greatly reduced price, apparently out of spite that Maharam had engaged his competitor. It appears that the second publisher might have been selling the set of Rambam at a loss with the intent to ruin the Maharam financially. The halachic question was whether an individual may purchase the less expensive edition of the second publisher.

The shaylah was referred to the Rama for decision, who ruled that the second publisher’s actions constitute unfair trade practices. Rama prohibited purchasing or selling the competing edition, until the Maharam’s edition was sold out. Realizing that the non-Jewish publisher would not obey his ruling, Rama reinforced his ruling by placing a cherem (decree of excommunication) on anyone selling, buying or abetting the sale of the competing edition (Shu”t Rama #10). This was an effective way of guaranteeing that Jews did not purchase the less expensive (but inferior) edition.

The Rama’s ruling established a precedent. Subsequent to Rama’s ruling, it became common practice for publishers to include in their works a cherem (plural: charamim) from a well-known posek banning the publishing of the same sefer, usually for a period of six to twenty-five years. As a matter of fact, these charamim were the main reason why publishers sought haskamos when they published seforim. The purpose of the haskamah was that they included charamim, to make it financially worthwhile for the publisher to invest the resources necessary to produce the sefer. Thus, these charamim encouraged publishing more seforim and the spread of Torah learning.

Generally, these charamim protecting the publisher’s rights were accepted and obeyed. However, in the early nineteenth century, an interesting dispute arose between the Chasam Sofer, the Rav of Pressburg, and Rav Mordechai Benet, the Rav of Nikolsburg, germane to the production of the famous Roedelheim machzorim. Two competing editions of these machzorim were produced, the first by Wolf Heidenheim, who had invested much time and money gathering and comparing the texts in old editions and manuscripts. A Jewish publishing house located in a different city subsequently published a competing edition. Prior to Heidenheim’s issuing the machzorim, several prominent rabbonim had issued a cherem banning other publishers from competing.

The Chasam Sofer prohibited the second publisher from selling his machzorim and similarly banned people from purchasing them (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #41, #79). In his opinion, this case is halachically comparable to the edition of Rambam produced by the Maharam Padua.

Rav Benet disagreed, contending that there were several key differences between the cases. In his opinion, it is unnecessary to guarantee publication of machzorim by issuing charamim. Machzorim are a common item, and publishers know that they will profit from producing them. Thus, the entire purpose for which these charamim were created, to guarantee the production of seforim, does not apply. Furthermore, since non-Jewish publishers will certainly produce machzorim, issuing a cherem against competition will benefit the non-Jewish publishers, who will be faced with less competition, more than it will benefit a Jewish publisher, such as Wolf Heidenheim. In addition, Heidenheim’s first edition had already sold out, and charamim traditionally ended when the edition was sold out, assuming that one edition was sufficient to guarantee a publisher sufficient profit to make it worth his while. In addition, Rav Benet questioned whether the system of charamim was still appropriate, once the government had established its own rules and laws of copyright infringement (Shu”t Parashas Mordechai, Choshen Mishpat #7, 8).

The Chasam Sofer countered that since Heidenheim had invested time and money in checking and correcting texts, his business interest should be protected to a greater degree, and that Heidenheim should qualify under a special halachic dispensation allowed for those guaranteeing that Torah texts are accurate (see Kesubos 106a). As a result, the Chasam Sofer contended that Heidenheim’s monopoly should be allowed for the entire twenty-five years decreed in the original cherem, even after he had sold out his first edition.

DOES HALACHA RECOGNIZE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AS OWNERSHIP?

This shaylah came to the forefront in the middle of the nineteenth century, also as a result of a din torah. Around 1850, a printer named Yosef Hirsch Balaban published a large-size edition of Shulchan Aruch with major commentaries, accompanied for the first time by the anthologized commentary, Pischei Tshuvah. Balaban was sued in beis din by a printer named Avraham Yosef Madfis who claimed to have purchased exclusive rights to Pischei Tshuvah from its author. (I am uncertain whether “Madfis” was indeed his family name, or whether this referred to his profession.) At the time, Pischei Tshuvah had been printed only once, in a small-size edition, including only the Shulchan Aruch and one other commentary, the Be’er Heiteiv. Madfis claimed that Balaban had violated his (Madfis’s) exclusive ownership rights to Pischei Tshuvah.

The Rav who presided over the din torah, Rav Shmuel Valdberg of Zalkava, ruled in favor of Balaban for the following reason. The original edition of Pischei Tshuvah did not include any statement placing a cherem against someone printing a competing edition. Rav Valdberg contended that this voided any copyright on Pischei Tshuvah. Furthermore, Rav Valdberg included two more reasons to sustain his ruling. One, the original edition of Pischei Tshuvah was no longer available. Thus, even had a cherem banned a competing edition, it would have already expired once the first edition had sold out. Second, even if the first edition was still available for sale, Balaban’s reproducing Pischei Tshuvah as part of a multi-volume set of Shulchan Aruch was not competition for the original edition, where Pischei Tshuvah had been published as a small, presumably inexpensive sefer. Rav Valdberg reasoned that no one interested in purchasing Pischei Tshuvah would likely purchase Balaban’s edition of Shulchan Aruch just for that purpose; instead he would buy the small edition (assuming it was available). Thus, he did not consider Balaban’s edition to be unfair competition for those looking to purchase Pischei Tshuvah.

According to Rav Valdberg’s analysis, the author of Pischei Tshuvah has no greater ownership to his work than someone publishing a different person’s work. His latter two arguments, that the first edition was already sold out and therefore the cherem expired, and that the multi-volume set does not compete with the one volume edition, would both be preempted if we assume that the author retains ownership over his work. Thus, Rav Valdberg did not believe that halacha recognizes intellectual property rights.

The Sho’eil uMeishiv (1:44) took issue with this point. In a letter addressed to Rav Valdberg, which he subsequently published in his own responsa, he contended that the author of a work is its owner. Thus, Pischei Tshuvah retains his rights as author/owner whether or not a cherem was declared against competition. A cherem is to guarantee a publisher enough time to recoup his investment. An author is an owner, not an investor, and maintains ownership over the item produced, which he is entitled to sell, regulate, or contract. This is called intellectual property rights.

Upon reading the Sho’eil uMeishiv’s ruling, Rav Yitzchok Shmelkes, wrote him that he disagreed with Sho’eil uMeishiv’s reasoning (Shu”t Beis Yitzchok, Yoreh Deah 2:75). Beis Yitzchok contends that halacha does not recognize intellectual property rights as inherent ownership. In Beis Yitzchok’s opinion, the author has a right of ownership, but only because it is accepted by government regulation, which is termed dina dimalchusa dina, literally, the law of the government is binding. Although halacha does not usually accept non-Jewish legal regulations, a civil law established for the wellbeing of society is usually accepted. Since intellectual property rights encourage initiative and invention that are in society’s best interests, halacha accepts these ownership rights to the extent that they are recognized by civil law.

There are several key differences between the position of Sho’eil uMeishiv and that of Beis Yitzchok. According to Sho’eil uMeishiv, the ownership of an author exists forever, just as any other property that he owns. Upon his passing, they are inherited by his heirs, just like his other property. However, in Beis Yitzchok’s opinion, the ownership rights extend only according to what is established by government regulation and expire after a number of years. Moreover, in most countries, a copyright is valid only if registered, and it must also be indicated in the published work. Presumably this was not true in the Beis Yitzchok’s place and time, since he applied civil copyright law to Pischei Tshuvah, even though the author had not indicated any copyright in the sefer.

Thus, whether halacha recognizes intellectual property ownership is disputed.

Some authorities rally evidence that the Chofetz Chayim agreed with the Sho’eil uMeishiv’s position. The Chofetz Chayim left specific instructions detailing who owns the publishing rights to his seforim after his passing. He instructed that his seforim on loshon hora could be freely republished, and that Mishnah Berurah may be published by anyone, provided that 4% of its volumes printed are donated to shullen and batei medrash. However, he stipulated that most of his seforim could not be republished without permission of his family members, and that the proceeds from such publication should succor his widow for the rest of her life. Chofetz Chayim’s instructions imply that he considered his ownership to be in perpetuity. Furthermore, Chofetz Chayim did not publish any words of cherem or copyright inside his seforim. Thus, he seems to have presumed ownership over future editions of seforim on the basis of intellectual property (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 9:153), although it is possible that he based it on dina dimalchusa dina, following the opinion of Beis Yitzchok.

If one reads the haskamos on sefarim, published from the time of the Rama until the close of the nineteenth century, one notices that this dispute between the Sho’eil uMeishiv and the Beis Yitzchok seems to have been fairly widespread. For example, when the Chavos Yair published his own responsa, all the haskamos allow his copyright rights against someone else publishing his own responsa for a limited period of time. According to the Sho’eil uMeishiv’s opinion, the Chavos Yair should have owned these rights forever!

On the other hand, when a new edition of Shu”t Rivash was published in the 1870’s, it included a very extensive index that included all the places that the Rivash is quoted by the Beis Yosef and other halachic authorities. The edition contained three haskamos: from the Netziv, from Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spector and from the Malbim. All three include a cherem against anyone publishing the Shu”t Rivash for six years, but explicitly mention that the ownership of the newly created index is the property of the publisher forever and may not be reproduced without his permission. They clearly are recognizing intellectual property rights in halacha.

Thus, we see interesting historical precedent both in favor of and in opposition to whether halacha recognizes intellectual property. Some of these factors are included when debating the role of copyright violation in halacha today.




The Longest Year: The Secrets of the Jewish Calendar

Click to see a pdf of the Rav’s article in Mishpacha:




How Does a Heter Iska Work?

clip_image002

Andy Gross, a businessman who is proud that he is now observing mitzvos, is on time for his appointment. After a brief greeting, I ask him what brings him to my office on this beautiful morning.

“I recently learned that even though the Torah prohibits paying or receiving interest, there is something called a heter iska that legalizes it. How can we legitimize something that the Torah expressly prohibits?”

Indeed, Andy’s question is both insightful and important, and deserves a thorough explanation. Why don’t you join us!

I noted that this week’s parsha discusses the prohibition of interest:

Do not collect interest from him, for you shall fear Hashem and allow your brother to live. Therefore, do not provide him money with interest (Chapter 25:36- 37).

This verse teaches three different mitzvos:

1. Do not collect interest from him. This entails a prohibition on the lender against collecting interest (Bava Metzia 75b).

2. Allow your brother to live. From the words allow your brother to live we derive a positive commandment that one who did collect interest is required to return it (Bava Metzia 62a).

3. Do not provide him money with interest prohibits creating a loan that involves interest, even if the lender never collects it (Bava Metzia 62a). A lender who later collects the interest also violates the first prohibition, and if he subsequently refuses to return it, he violates the positive commandment.

Not only does the lender violate the prohibition against ribbis, but also the borrower, the witnesses, the broker, the co-signer, the scribe who writes up the loan document (Mishnah Bava Metzia 75b), the notary public who notarizes it, and possibly even the attorney who drafts a document that includes provisions for ribbis all violate the laws of ribbis (Bris Yehudah 1:6). Thus, anyone causing the loan to be either finalized or collected violates the Torah’s law.

“The halachos of ribbis are quite complex,” I told Andy. “From my experience, even seasoned Torah scholars sometimes mistakenly violate the prohibition of ribbis. For example, having a margin account at a Jewish owned brokerage, charging a Jewish customer for late payment, or borrowing off someone else’s credit line usually entail violations of ribbis. I even know of Torah institutions that ‘borrow’ the use of someone’s credit card in order to meet their payroll, intending to gradually pay back the interest charges.”

“Why does the last case involve ribbis?” inquired an inquisitive Andy.

“Let me present a case where I was involved. A Torah institution was behind on its payroll, and had no one available from whom to borrow money. The director asked a backer of the institution if the institution could borrow money through his bank credit line.”

“I still do not see any ribbis problem here” replied Andy, “just a chesed that costs him nothing.”

“To whom did the bank lend money?” I asked Andy.

“As far as they are concerned, they are lending money to the backer, since it was his credit line.”

“So from whom did the institution borrow? The bank did not lend to them. Doesn’t this mean that really two loans have taken place: one from the bank to Mr. Chesed, and another from him to the institution? The loan from the bank incurs interest charges that Mr. Chesed is obligated to pay. Who is paying those charges?”

“It would only be fair for the institution to pay them,” responded Andy.

“However, if the institution pays those charges, they are in effect paying more money to Mr. Chesed than they borrowed from him since they are also paying his debt to the bank. This violates ribbis. The fact that the institution pays the bank directly does not mitigate the problem (see Gemara Bava Metzia 71b).”

Andy was noticeably stunned. “I have always thought of interest as a prohibition against usury – or taking advantage of a desperate borrower. Here the ‘usurer’ did not even lend any money, and thought he was doing a tremendous chesed for tzedakah; he did not realize that his assistance caused both of them to violate a serious prohibition!”

“What is even more tragic,” I continued, “is that one can convert most of these prohibited transactions into a heter iska that is perfectly permitted.

WHAT IS A HETER ISKA?

“A heter iska is a halachically approved way of restructuring a loan or debt so that it becomes an investment instead of a loan. This presumes that the investor assumes some element of risk should the business fail, which is one basic difference between an investment and a loan. An investor could potentially lose money, whereas a borrower always remains responsible to pay.

“One is permitted to create a heter iska even when the goal of both parties is only to find a kosher way of creating a transaction that is very similar to an interest- bearing loan (Terumas HaDeshen #302). The words heter iska mean exactly that: performing an allowable business deal that is similar to a prohibited transaction. As we will see, the structure must still allow for an element of risk and loss as accepted by halacha, otherwise it fails the test of being an investment.

“There are several ways of structuring a heter iska, and indeed different situations may call for different types of heter iska. In order to explain how a basic heter iska operates, I must first explain an investment that involve no ribbis, so that we can understand how a heter iska was developed. For the balance of this article, we will no longer refer to “borrowers” and “lenders.” Instead, I will refer to a “managing partner” or “manager” and an “investor.”

Andy interrupts my monologue. “Was heter iska used in earlier generations?”

THE EARLIEST HETER ISKA

“The concept of heter iska is hundreds of years old. The earliest heter iska of which I am aware is suggested by the Terumas HaDeshen (1390- 1460). His case involves Reuven, who wishes to invest in interest-bearing loans to gentile customers, but does not want to take any risk. Shimon, who is an experienced broker of such loans, is willing to take the risk in return for some of the profit on Reuven’s money.

“Reuven wants a guarantee that he will receive back all his capital regardless of what actually happens in the business venture. Essentially, this means that Shimon is borrowing money from Reuven and then lending it out to the gentiles; this would result in a straightforward Torah prohibition of ribbis, since Shimon is paying Reuven a return on the loan. Is there any way that Reuven and Shimon can structure the deal without violating the Torah’s prohibitions against paying and receiving interest?”

At this point, Andy exclaims: “Either this is a loan, and Reuven’s money is protected, or it is an investment, and it is not. How can Reuven have his cake and eat it too!”

“Actually, all the attempts at creating heter iska are attempts to find a balance whereby the investor is fairly secure that his assets are safe, and yet can generate profit.

PIKADON – INVESTING

“Let me explain how a heter iska accomplishes both these goals, by developing a case: Mr. Sweat has a business idea, but he lacks the capital to implement it. He approaches Mr. Bucks for investment capital. If Bucks has sufficient confidence in Sweat’s acumen to build a business, he might decide to invest even without knowing any details about it in the hope that Sweat’s idea will provide handsome profits. None of this involves any ribbis issues since there is no loan and no one is paying to use the other person’s capital. This business venture is called a pikadon.

GUARANTEEING THE INVESTMENT

“Your model is highly theoretical,” Andy points out, “since it assumes that Mr. Bucks invests without much assurance. Few people I know would entrust someone with their money without some type of guarantee.”

“You have hit on a key point – let us see how halacha deals with this. Whenever an investor entrusts someone with funds, the Torah permits him to demand an oath afterwards that the manager was not negligent. Therefore, Bucks may insist that Sweat swears an oath that he was not negligent with the money and also that he reported exactly how much money Bucks is due. The heter iska agreement may even require that Sweat swears this oath by using G-d’s name and while holding a Sefer Torah in front of the entire congregation.”

“That should certainly get Mr. Sweat to sweat,” quipped Andy. “But then again, assuming Mr. Sweat is a frum Jew, is he going to want to swear any oath at all?”

“That is exactly the point that secures Bucks’ bucks, since observant people would rather pay a substantial sum of money to avoid swearing an oath. The heter iska specifies that the manager has the option of swearing the oath and paying only what the investor is entitled. However, the manager has the option of substituting an agreed upon payment for the oath. Since observant Jews would rather pay the fixed return rather than swear an oath, we accomplish that the investor is reasonably secure, although no loan and no ribbis transpired. The result is not a loan, but a cleverly structured investment.”

After waiting a few seconds and absorbing what he just learned, Andy continued:

“Is there anything else I need to know about a heter iska before I use one?”

“I need to explain one other very important detail that people often, unfortunately, overlook. Most forms of heter iska state that the investor paid the manager a specific sum of money, say one dollar, for his time involved in the business venture. It is vitally important that this dollar be actually paid; otherwise there is a ribbis prohibition involved. Yet I know that many people overlook this requirement and do not understand its importance.”

“Could you explain why this is important?”

STANDARD ISKA – A SILENT PARTNERSHIP

“The standard heter iska assumes that the arrangement is half loan and half pikadon. This means that if Mr. Bucks invests $100,000 with Mr. Sweat to open a business, Mr. Bucks and Mr. Sweat become partners in the business because half of the amount is now a $50,000 loan that Mr. Sweat must eventually repay, and the other half is a $50,000 outlay that Mr. Bucks has now invested in a business that Mr. Sweat owns or intends to open. Bucks may receive no profit on the $50,000 loan he extended — if he does, it is prohibited ribbis. However, he may receive as much profit on the investment part of the portfolio as is generated by half the business. As a result, Mr. Bucks and Mr. Sweat are both 50% partners in the business.

RECEIVING PROFIT FROM THE LOAN

“However, there is an interesting problem that we must resolve. Bucks invested a sum with Sweat, for which he received a profit, and he also loaned Sweat money, for which he may not receive any profit. However, the return on the investment was realized only because Mr. Sweat is investing his know how and labor to generate profit for the partnership – know how and labor that Bucks did not pay for. Why is this investment of services not considered payment for Mr. Bucks’ loan, and therefore a ribbis problem?

“Indeed this concern is raised by the Gemara, which presents two methods to resolve the problem.

“The first method is that the investor pays the manager a certain amount for his expertise and effort. As long as both parties agree in advance, we are unconcerned how little (or much) this amount is (Bava Metzia 68b). However, there must be an amount, and it must be actually paid. Even if they agree to a sum as paltry as one dollar, this is an acceptable arrangement, similar to Michael Bloomberg’s accepting one dollar as salary to be mayor of New York.”

“I now understand,” interjected Andy, “why it is so important that this amount be actually paid. If Mr. Sweat receives no compensation for his hard work on behalf of Mr. Bucks’ investment, it demonstrates that he was working because he received a loan, which would be prohibited as ribbis.”

“Precisely,” I replied. “However, there is another way to structure the heter iska so that this is not a problem. This is by having the profit and loss percentages vary. This means that if the business profits, the managing partner makes a larger part of the profit than he loses if there is a loss. For example, in the original deal, let us assume that our silent and managing partners will divide the profits, but in case of loss, our manager is responsible to pay only $30,000. This means that Sweat borrowed only $30,000 and therefore owns only 30% of the business, which should entitle him to only 30% of the profits. The extra 20% of the profits he receives is his salary for managing the business. He is therefore being paid a percentage of Bucks’ profits for his efforts, similar to the way a money manager or financial consultant is often compensated by receiving a percentage of the profits on the funds he manages.

“The heter iska I have seen used by the Jewish owned banks in Israel includes this method. The bank invests 45% in a “business” managed by the mortgage borrower, but the borrower is entitled to 50% of the profits. Thus, he is “paid” five per cent of the bank’s profits for his services in managing the investment.”

“Can you explain to me how the Terumas HaDeshen’s money lender would use a heter iska?” inquired Andy.

“Actually, his heter iska varied slightly from what we use today. Using today’s accepted heter iska, Shimon the manager accepts the money with the understanding that he is borrowing part and managing the balance for Reuven. He is compensated for his efforts according to one of the approaches mentioned above, and agrees in advance to divide the profits. He also agrees that he will swear an oath guaranteeing that he was not negligent in his responsibilities, and the two parties agree that if he subsequently chooses to pay Reuven a certain amount he is absolved of swearing the oath. Thus, Reuven’s return is not interest on a loan, but the amount Shimon had agreed to pay rather than swear how much he actually owes Reuven.

“This approach has been accepted by thousands of halachic authorities as a valid method of receiving a return on one’s investment that looks like interest but is not. The Chofetz Chayim notes that if someone can lend money without compensation, he should certainly do so and not utilize a heter iska, because this is the mitzvah of performing chesed (Ahavas Chesed 2:15). Heter iska is meant for investment situations, and should ideally be limited to them.

“I would like to close by sharing with you a thought from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch about the reason why the Torah prohibited interest. He notes that if the Torah considered charging interest to be inherently immoral, it would have banned charging interest from non-Jews, and also would have prohibited only the lender and not the borrower. Rather, Rav Hirsch notes, the Torah’s prohibition is to demonstrate that the capital we receive from Hashem is so that we donate tzedakah and provide loans, and thereby fulfill our share in building and maintaining a Torah community. The Torah’s goal in banning the use of capital for interest-paying loans is to direct excess funds to chesed and tzedakah.”




Would You Like One or Two?

On the evening of the first night of Chol HaMoed in Eretz Yisroel (corresponding to the eve of the second night of Yom Tov in chutz la’aretz), I received a curious phone call:

“Rabbi,” the female voice began, “I am calling on behalf of my friend, Rivkah.” After decades of rabbinic experience, I was convinced that this was the introduction to an embarrassing question. People often prefer pretending that they are asking for someone else — hiding behind the name of “a friend.” But this time, I was wrong.

KIDDUSH OR HAVDALAH?

“Rivkah is a student at Bnos Aliyah Seminary and is uncertain whether she should keep one day of Yom Tov or two. A few weeks ago, she visited a family for Shabbos and mentioned her predicament. The man of the house graciously told her that he answers halachic inquiries, and ruled that she need keep only one day of Yom Tov. However, upon returning to Seminary, a teacher told Rivkah that she should not ask her shaylah from just anyone, but must ask one of the seminary rabbis. Rivkah did so, and was told to keep two days. Subsequently, someone told her that she should not have asked the question a second time and must follow the first ruling she received. Now, she is in a dilemma: Should she observe the second day of Yom Tov or not?

Although most people do not have a Yom Tov issue like Rivkah did, they could still stumble into a similar predicament by making a query of two different rabbonim. As I understood the shaylah, the answer to Rivkah’s query did not involve analyzing the laws of who must observe two days, but concerned whether she must follow the first opinion or the second. Although the Gemara states that one may not ask the same shaylah twice, perhaps this applies only if someone received a strict ruling that he or she is now trying to overturn. But what happens if someone first received a lenient ruling, and then received a stricter response? In our instance, the first authority told Rivkah that she need keep only one day Yom Tov, which, according to most opinions, is considered a lenient ruling, since she now may perform melacha on the second day (Minchas Shelomoh 1:19:8). (Shu’t Chacham Tzvi #167 contends, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, that keeping one day is the stricter ruling.)

In order to resolve Rivkah’s quandary, we need to discuss the following questions:

  1. May one ask again after receiving a lenient answer?
  2. If one did, and the second authority ruled strictly, whose reply is binding? Is one still bound by the first ruling, which in Rivkah’s case was lenient, or the second, stricter ruling; or perhaps she should now ask a third authority for a final decision?
  3. Was the teacher correct in directing her to ask a second shaylah after she already received a psak?

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Before focusing on Rivkah’s predicament, we must first understand the general principles of the topic:

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 7a) teaches that someone who asked a shaylah and received a strict ruling may not subsequently ask the question from a different authority. I will refer to this principle as hanishal lechacham (“one who asked a Torah scholar”), based on the opening words of the Gemara’s statement.

Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 7a s.v. hanishal) inquires, “May one never question the rav’s decision? Let the different authorities debate the issue and perhaps the second will prove to the original authority that the original decision was incorrect.” Tosafos concludes that the Gemara prohibits only asking a second rav without notifying him that one has already asked the question. However, if one notifies the second authority that the question had already been asked, the second authority may oppose the decision, if he considers it mistaken. Can he actually overturn the first ruling? This depends, as there are three levels of error:

CLEAR MISTAKE

  1. If it is obvious to the second rav that the first rav erred, the second rav may inform the inquirer of the correct practice (Tosafos). This is true only if the first rav‘s ruling conflicts with accepted halachic practice or was based on inaccurate information (see Mishnah, Bechoros 28b). In these instances, the first opinion is totally disregarded, since it is erroneous. Judaism does not accept a doctrine of rabbinic infallibility; on the contrary, the Gemara records several instances where great halachic authorities erred in specific rulings (see Horiyos 2a). For example, Rabbi Tarfon ruled that a cow whose uterus was surgically removed is not kosher, as it will die shortly. The Mishnah records that when it was demonstrated that an animal can survive this surgery satisfactorily, Rabbi Tarfon acknowledged his error (Mishnah, Bechoros 28b).

PROVABLE ERROR

  1. If the second rav feels he can prove that the first one’s ruling was mistaken, but the ruling is not an obvious error, the second authority may not say anything directly to the inquirer. Instead, he should contact the first rav and share with him his proofs that the ruling was flawed. In the true style of intellectual honesty required of a Torah scholar, the first rav should carefully examine the second rav’s approach to see if it has merit. It is now up to the first rav to decide whether to change his ruling (Shu’t Panim Meiros #2; cf. Shach, Yoreh Deah 242:58; Choshen Mishpat 25:14:17). If he still feels that his first interpretation is correct, or, at least, not proven to be in error, he should maintain his original position. According to some opinions, he may retract his position if he no longer feels it to be correct, even though he cannot prove it wrong (Levush, Yoreh Deah 242:31; Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 242:60).

A similar situation could result if the second rav knows that well-accepted authorities rule differently from the way the first rav did, and he suspects that the first rav would accept their position (see Rosh, Sanhedrin 4:6). In this situation, too, the second rav may simply notify the first rav of the variant opinion, and then it is up to the first rav to decide whether to rescind his original decision.

In all the cases we mentioned so far, the first rav’s ruling is retracted, either because it was clearly erroneous or because he himself withdrew it.

DISPUTE IN INTERPRETATION

III. If the second rav disagrees with the first rav’s conclusion, but cannot prove it incorrect, the second rav should say nothing to the questioner, who remains bound by the original decision. There is no halachic error here, but a diversity of outlook, and the first rav’s verdict cannot be overturned. Even if the first rav himself subsequently reconsiders his decision, most authorities contend that he cannot alter his own original ruling, since the original approach cannot be disproved (Shach, Yoreh Deah 242:58 and Choshen Mishpat 25:14:17; Shu’t Panim Meiros #2; Divrei Chamudos, Chullin 3:24). (However, note that the Levush, Yoreh Deah 242:31, and the Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 242:60, rule that he can change his mind. They feel that the second rav should engage the first rav in debate, because this might change the first one’s mind.)

HOW LONG?

How long does the ruling remain binding?

The Rama (Yoreh Deah 242:31) rules that the rav’s decision is binding only for the specific instance just asked. However, if the same shaylah recurs, one may re-ask the shaylah from either the same or a different rav. The same rav himself, and certainly any other rav, may rule differently when the question recurs. Therefore, if someone asked whether one may perform a certain activity on Shabbos, was told that it is forbidden, and subsequently discovers that the consensus of poskim permits this activity, he may be lenient in the future. Similarly, a rav who ruled one way and subsequently discovered that most poskim dispute his conclusion may conclude differently the next time he is asked this question.

WHAT IF THE FIRST SCHOLAR WAS LENIENT?

So far, we have assumed that the first rav decided strictly. What happens if the first rav ruled leniently, and the questioner would like to ask someone else? This issue is germane to Rivkah asking her seminary rabbi about observing two days of Yom Tov after the first rabbi permitted her to keep only one day.

The answer to this question depends on why one may not ask a shaylah from a second authority. Here are two reasons given:

Reason #1: CONSIDERING IT PROHIBITED

Most Rishonim contend that when submitting a question to a rav, the inquirer accepts the rav’s decision as binding and must then consider the item either permitted or prohibited (Raavad quoted by Ran; Rosh). This concept is called shavya anafshei chaticha de’issura (considering something as prohibited). I will clarify this principle with a case that I discussed in a different article.

A man believes himself to be a kohen, even though there is insufficient evidence for his assumption. Since most Jews are yisroelim and not kohanim, his halachic status is a yisroel, and he has none of the rights of a kohen — he may not duchen, redeem a bechor or receive the first aliyah to the Torah. However, since he considers himself a kohen, he must assume the stringencies that result from that esteemed status: he may not come in contact with corpses, nor marry a woman forbidden to a kohen. Since he believes that he is a kohen, he is shavya anafshei chaticha de’issura, he must consider himself prohibited to do these things, as if he is a kohen.

The Rishonim mentioned above maintain that asking a shaylah means accepting the rav’s opinion as binding halacha; if he rules stringently, I must accept his verdict, and therefore I may not re-ask the question. (The exceptions mentioned previously, where the ruling can be retracted, are because the decision is considered an error and, therefore, not a valid decision.)

This approach rules that the principle of hanishal lechacham applies only when the first rav ruled stringently. If he ruled leniently, I am permitted to follow his ruling, but not obligated to, and therefore, I may re-ask the shaylah from a different rav (see Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 7a s.v. hanishal). Thus, Rivkah may ask her shaylah from the seminary rabbi, notwithstanding the first ruling she received. We will soon discuss whether she is obligated to keep the second day of Yom Tov, once she received this second ruling.

Reason #2: RESPECT FOR A TALMID CHACHAM

Other authorities explain that re-asking a shaylah from a second rav affronts the respect due the first rav, by implying that one is questioning his competence (cited by Ran to Avodah Zarah. See there that he also quotes an additional reason.) This rationale forbids re-asking a question, even if the first rav ruled leniently, as it is still offensive to the rav’s honor. Following this approach, Rivkah should not have asked the seminary rabbi, once she had already asked someone qualified to answer her shaylah.

In view of the second reason, Rivkah’s teacher should certainly have asked her own shaylah as to whether to instruct Rivkah to ask her shaylah again.

Do any other differences result from the dispute as to why one may not re-ask a shaylah? Indeed, they do.

A BRACHA DISPUTE

Many halachic issues are not matters of being strict versus lenient, but simply questions regarding correct procedure. For example, whether or not to recite a bracha in a certain instance, which bracha to recite, or whether to repeat a tefillah are all instances where there is no “stricter” or “more lenient” side of the question. Both sides of the question involve a stringency, and therefore, the principle of shavya anafshei chaticha de’issura is not applicable.

Those who ban re-asking a question because of shavya anafshei chaticha de’issura should therefore permit re-asking any question of this type, in order to receive a more accurate or authoritative response. On the other hand, those who ban re-asking a question because it is offensive to a scholar’s honor should prohibit it in this instance, too, since it implies a lack of competence on the part of the first rav asked.

Before resolving Rivkah’s dilemma, we need to explore one other fascinating point:

A DISPUTE BETWEEN THE TALMUDS?

When the Gemara Bavli (Avodah Zarah 7a) cites the prohibition of remaking a halachic inquiry, it refers only to cases where the first rav answered stringently, but mentions no cases where the first rav ruled leniently. This implies that the Bavli explains the reason for this prohibition like the first approach – that one has accepted the prohibition of the rav.

However, the Yerushalmi (Shabbos 19:1) quotes the following anecdote:

Rabbi Simon permitted something which Rabbi Ami subsequently prohibited. Rabbi Simon was upset; is it not said that if one sage permitted something, a second sage may not prohibit it?

This Yerushalmi appears to rule that one may not re-ask a question, even if one received a lenient ruling, which is impossible according to the first approach. Thus, the Yerushalmi appears to understand that the reason one may not re-ask a question is the talmid chacham’s honor, the second approach cited. This would imply that the two Talmuds dispute the exact question upon which our dear Rivkah and her teacher stumbled!

The Rishonim prefer to avoid saying that the two Talmuds disagree, suggesting different approaches to resolve this contradiction.

AN ALTERNATIVE READING

Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 7a s.v. hanishal) suggests reading the last statement of the Yerushalmi rhetorically, as opposed to being a support for Rabbi Simon’s position. The passage now reads:

Rabbi Simon permitted something which Rabbi Ami subsequently prohibited. Rabbi Simon was upset. The Yerushalmi now questions the validity of Rabbi Simon’s reaction:

“Does it say anywhere that if one sage permitted something, a second sage may not prohibit it?”

Following Tosafos’ approach, the Yerushalmi rules, exactly as the Bavli implies, that the prohibition to re-ask a question applies only when the first scholar decided stringently. However, when he ruled leniently, a second scholar may rule freely on the case.

On the other hand, the Rosh explains the Yerushalmi as I explained originally, that Rabbi Simon objected to Rabbi Ami’s strict ruling as halachically objectionable, after he (Rabbi Simon) had permitted the matter. The Rosh quotes this approach as definitive halacha, meaning that hanishal lechacham is prohibited because of the honor of the first rav. The Rosh appears to contend that both reasons are true, the Bavli emphasizes one reason, and the Yerushalmi the second. This approach maintains that one may, indeed, not seek out a second rav’s opinion, whether the first rav was lenient or strict.

HOW DO WE RULE?

How do we rule in this dispute?

Most halachic authorities rule that the law of hanishal lechacham applies only when the initial ruling was strict, but if it was lenient, one may, indeed, re-ask the shaylah (Shach, Yoreh Deah 242:59; Gra). However, there are some who rule, like the Rosh, that hanishal lechacham applies whether the initial ruling was strict or lenient and therefore forbid re-asking a question, even if one received a lenient ruling (Rama, Yoreh Deah 242:31). According to the first approach, there was nothing wrong with Rivkah re-asking her question.

CONCLUSION

Now that Rivkah already re-asked the question, must she keep one or two days of Yom Tov? According to those who rule that hanishal lechacham is because one has accepted the stringent opinion, once Rivkah re-asked the question she is bound to follow the second, stricter, ruling. Since most authorities rule this way, one who re-asks the question from a second authority will be obligated to follow his opinion, if he is stricter. No matter how many people one asks, one will be always obliged to follow the strictest ruling. Thus, Rivkah should celebrate two days of Yom Tov this Pesach.

The final psak Rivkah received applies only to the question she asked about Pesach. When Shavuos arrives, she may ask again whether to observe one day Yom Tov or two. May she direct her question to a particular rav, knowing what answer she wants to receive? That is a topic for a different article.