Paying Workers on Time – The Mitzvah of “Bal Talin”
In honor of Yaakov Avinu’s contractual dealings with his
father-in-law, I present:
In parshas Ki Seitzei, the Torah instructs, “Beyomo
sitein secharo ve’lo sa’avor alav hashemesh – On that day [the day the work
was completed] you should pay his wage, and the sun shall not set [without him
receiving payment]” (Devarim 24:15). The Torah mentions two mitzvos; a
positive mitzvah (mitzvas aseh) and a negative mitzvah (mitzvas lo
sa’aseh) to guarantee that a worker is paid before sunset of the day
that he performed his job. Thus, someone who pays his worker on time fulfills a
positive mitzvah, whereas if he neglects to pay him on time and the worker
demands payment, he has transgressed a lo sa’aseh.
The Torah gives us a definition of “on time” – before
sunset. This mitzvah is mentioned in parshas Kedoshim as well. However,
there the Torah presents the mitzvah somewhat differently: Lo salin pe’ulas
sachir it’cha ad boker, “The wages of a worker shall not remain with you
until morning” (Vayikra 19:13). Here, the Torah requires that the worker
be paid before morning, implying that one has the entire night to pay
him, rather than being responsible to pay him before the day is over. The two
verses appear to be contradictory, one implying that I must pay my worker
before sunset, the other implying that I have until morning.
Chazal resolve this conflict by explaining that
there are indeed two deadlines, the end of the day and the end of the night,
but that the two pesukim discuss different cases. The pasuk in Ki
Seitzei discusses a worker whose job finished during the day or precisely
at the end of the night. Such a worker must be paid before the following
sunset, which is the first deadline that arrives after he completed his job.
However, the pasuk in Kedoshim refers to a worker who completed
his job at the end of the day or during the night. Such a worker must be paid
Thus, the two verses together teach that there are two
payment deadlines, one at sunset and the other at daybreak. One is obligated to
pay his worker before the next deadline that occurs after the job is completed.
If the work was completed before the end of the day, he must be paid by sunset.
If the work was completed at night, he must be paid before daybreak (Bava
Metzia 111a, quoting the amora, Rav). It should be noted that one
violates the lo sa’aseh only in a case where the worker demanded payment
and the owner refused to pay. Furthermore, as we will note, there is no
violation if it is understood or prearranged that payment will be delayed.
WHAT TYPE OF WORK IS INCLUDED IN THIS MITZVAH?
The Torah was very concerned that a worker be paid on
time. This mitzvah applies not only to an employee, but also to a contractor
hired to perform a specific job; he must be paid by the first deadline after
the job is completed. It also applies to someone who works on the client’s item
on his own premises, such as a repairman of small appliances, or people who do
dry cleaning and tailoring. Payment on these items is due by the first deadline
after the item is returned (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 339:6).
Likewise, someone hired for a specific length of time must
be paid by the first deadline after completion of employment. In all these
situations, if the job is completed (or the item returned) during the day, the
worker should be paid by sunset. If the job is completed by night, he should be
paid by morning.
This mitzvah applies to all kinds of hired work,
whether the worker is a contractor or an employee, permanent or temporary, poor
or wealthy, adult or minor. Thus, by paying on the day we receive the service,
we fulfill the mitzvah of beyomo sitein secharo, paying a worker on the day
he completes a job, as well as fulfilling other mitzvos mentioned later
in this article. The following is a partial list of workers included in this
mitzvah: automobile and appliance repairmen, babysitters, dentists, dry
cleaners, house cleaners, housing contractors, gardeners, lawyers, physicians,
psychologists, rebbes, teachers and tutors.
Shimon picked up his garment from the tailor, who
asked him for payment. Shimon forgot to bring money to pay the tailor, and
asked the tailor if he minds waiting a couple of days until Shimon would be
back in the neighborhood. The tailor answered that his rent is due today, and
he is short on funds. Shimon is obligated min haTorah to make a
special trip to pay the tailor today. Of course, his reward for fulfilling the
mitzvah is increased many times because of the inconvenience involved.
Similarly, one is required to pay the doctor on the
day of the appointment, unless other provisions have been prearranged. If I
hire a teenager to mow the lawn, I must pay him when he finishes the job. I
should not delay payment to a later date because of my convenience.
The employee or hiree must be paid in cash (Tosafos,
Bava Basra 92b; Shach Choshen Mishpat 336:4) or by check that he can
readily convert into cash. One may not pay a worker or contractor with
merchandise unless this was arranged in advance.
The employer has not fulfilled his mitzvah if he pays
with a post-dated check or a check that cannot be cashed immediately (such as, if
the bank is closed that day). Again, if the employee is told before he is hired
that these are the arrangements, then there is no violation.
In keeping with the Torah’s concept of protecting
workers’ rights, it is prohibited to call a repairman knowing that I have no
money to pay him, without telling him that payment will be delayed (see Ahavas
also applies to rental arrangements. Thus, if I rent an appliance or an
automobile, I must pay the rental fee by the sunset or daybreak after the
rental is completed.
Leah borrows a wedding dress from a gemach that
charges a fee for dry cleaning and other expenses. When she returns the dress,
she should pay the gemach before sunset or daybreak, whichever comes
SMALL WAGES AND SMALL EMPLOYEES
Even the delay of a wage less than a perutah is
a violation of bal talin (Ritva, Bava Metzia 111b). As mentioned
above, I am required to pay a minor on the day he performs a job for me. Thus, if
I hire a child to run an errand for me, I must pay him that day (Ahavas
Chesed 1:9:5). Furthermore, if I offer a young child a candy to do a job, I
am required to give him the candy on the day he did the job.
Reuven asked an eight-year-old to buy him an ice cream
cone, offering the child to buy himself a cone at the same time. The grocery
had only one cone left. If Reuven takes the cone for himself, he must make sure
to buy the child a cone before sunset that day. (In this instance, it will not
help Reuven if the child says that he does not mind, since a child cannot waive
his legal rights.)
Running a large business or being preoccupied is not a
valid reason for not paying on time (Tosafos, Bava Metzia 111a
s.v. Amar). Furthermore, arranging that someone else pay the workers or
contractors does not exempt the owner from responsibility if the agent is
remiss. This is because of a halachic principle that one may not assume
that an agent carried out a Torah command on my behalf (see Nesiv Hachesed 1:10:25).
WHAT IF I DIDN’T REALIZE I WOULD BE EXPECTED TO PAY
Unless there was a reason to assume that I was not
expected to pay until later, I am responsible to pay the day the work is
Mr. Siegal enters the doctor’s office and sees a sign
on the wall, “Payment is due when service is rendered.” Mr. Siegal had assumed
that he would pay when the bill arrives, and he has no money until his next
payday. He should tell the receptionist of his inability to pay and request that
the doctor be so informed before the appointment.
WHAT IF IT IS
ASSUMED THAT THE WORKER IS PAID LATER?
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 111a) discusses
the following situation and rules it halachically acceptable. The Jewish
merchants of Sura hired workers and paid them at the end of the next market
day, when the merchants had cash. Until market day, it was assumed that the
merchants would use their available cash to purchase more merchandise (Ritva
ad loc.), and the workers were always paid after market day. The Gemara
states that these merchants did not violate bal talin, since it was
assumed that the workers would not be paid until the following market day.
A contemporary analogy is when a business pays its
workers on Tuesdays for the week’s work or on the first of the month for the
previous month. In these situations, there is no violation of bal talin,
since this is the agreed arrangement.
WHAT IS THE HALACHA IF AN AGENT HIRED THE WORKERS?
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 110b) discusses
a case where the foreman hired workers on behalf of the employer, notifying
them that he is not responsible for their wages. Subsequently, the wages were
delayed. The Gemara states that neither the foreman nor the employer
violated bal talin. The foreman was not personally obligated to pay the
workers, and the owner did not violate bal talin, because he did not hire the
workers himself. Nevertheless, he is still required to pay them on time, if
possible (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 339:7).
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I MAY NOT BE ABLE TO PAY ON THE DUE
To avoid violating any Torah mitzvos, the owner should
tell the workers before they begin working that he is making a condition that
they forgo their right to be paid on time (Nesiv Hachesed 1:10:24).
WHAT SHOULD THE OWNER DO IF HE WILL BE OUT OF TOWN ON
The owner is responsible for having his workers paid on
time. If he will be absent when his workers finish, he must make provisions to
pay them on time (Ahavas Chesed 1:10:12).
Mrs. Schwartz is taking her child to the doctor and has hired a babysitter to take care of her other young children until her teenage daughter comes home at 4:00 p.m. Unless Mrs. Schwartz arranges otherwise, she must see that her babysitter is paid before sunset.
There are several ways Mrs. Schwartz can avoid violating the Torah’s law. When hiring the sitter, Mrs. Schwartz can tell her that she is hiring her with the understanding that the sitter waives her right to be paid before the day ends. In this case, if Mrs. Schwartz fails to pay the sitter before sunset, she will not violate any prohibition, although she will have missed the opportunity to perform a mitzvah. Therefore, it is better if Mrs. Schwartz gives her teenage daughter money to pay the sitter. This way Mrs. Schwartz has fulfilled the mitzvah of paying her worker on time. Optimally, Mrs. Schwartz should do both; that is, she should ask her sitter to waive her right, just in case the sitter is not paid on time, and arrange for her daughter to pay, so Mrs. Schwartz fulfills an extra mitzvah.
If the sitter did not waive her right to be paid before
sunset, Mrs. Schwartz must check with her daughter later in the day to see that
she did, indeed, pay the babysitter (see Nesiv Hachesed 1:10:25).
WHAT IF THE OWNER HAS NO MONEY WITH WHICH TO PAY?
Kalman Mandel’s business is running into a cash-flow
problem, and he is having difficulty paying his contractors. There are several shaylos
he should ask his rav:
(1) Is he required to pay his contractors from his own
personal money, or can he assume that, since his business is incorporated, he
is obligated to pay them only from his business account?
(2) How much is the business required to liquidate to
pay the contractors?
(3) How aggressively is the business required to
collect its receivables?
(4) Is he required to sell merchandise at a lower
price? At a loss?
Chofetz Chayim (Ahavas Chesed 1:9:7) rules that one is required to borrow money to
pay one’s workers on time, whereas Pischei Tshuva (339:8) and Graz
rule that it is the correct thing to do (midas chassidus), but it is not
According to Biur Halacha (242:1), if one does
not have enough money both to pay wages due on Friday and to make Shabbos, one
is required to pay the wages, even if, as a result, he will not have money for
Similarly, if sunset is approaching and the owner has
not yet paid wages that are due today, he must attend to paying his workers, if
they are demanding payment, even if the result is that he is unable to daven
As we have mentioned before, if the employee does not
claim payment or states that he doesn’t mind if the payment is delayed, the
employer does not violate bal talin. Nevertheless, the employer should
still attempt to pay on time, and he fulfills a mitzvah by doing so.
It is wrong for the owner to delay paying the worker,
forcing him to repeatedly return for payment. These actions violate the mitzvah
taught by the pasuk in Mishlei, “Al tomar le’rei’acha lech
vashoov umachar etein ve’yeish itach – Do not tell your neighbor ‘Go and
come back, I’ll pay you tomorrow,’ when you have [the money] with you” (Mishlei
If the employer refuses to pay his worker altogether, he
violates the prohibition of Lo sa’ashok es rei’acha, “Do not hold back
payment due your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:13). If the employee or
contractor is needy, the employer violates an additional prohibition, Lo
sa’ashok sachir ani ve’evyon, “Do not hold back payment due to a poor or destitute
person” (Devarim 24:14).
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 111a) counts a total
of seven Biblical mitzvos involved in withholding wages, including gezel,
stealing, as well as the above-mentioned mitzvos.
WHAT SHOULD THE OWNER DO IF HE IS SHORT ON MONEY?
What should the owner do when he does not have enough
money to pay all his employees and contractors? The Chofetz Chayim
discusses this exact shaylah in his sefer Ahavas Chesed. He rules
that if some of the workers are poor, he should pay those workers first. If all
or none of the workers are poor, he should divide the available funds among
MAY THE OWNER OFFER
COMPENSATION FOR DELAYED PAYMENT?
The owner missed his deadline. Feeling bad, he considers compensating
his workers by providing them with a bonus for their patience. Unfortunately,
although he means well, the owner has now incurred a different prohibition,
because this is considered as paying interest (ribis). Since he is
obligated to pay his workers, the amount owed is a debt. The prohibition
against interest applies to any debt, even if it did not originate as a loan.
Therefore, an employer who delayed paying his workers or contractors cannot
offer them compensation for the delay, nor can they charge him a late fee (Shulchan
Aruch Yoreh Deah 173:12; Rema ibid. 176:6).
Similarly, if the owner is tight on cash, he may not
offer his workers, contractors or other creditors a bonus if they agree to wait
for payment. This situation might entail a Torah prohibition of ribis (see
Bris Yehudah pg. 451 ftn 15). If necessary, he could arrange this with a
heter iska, and a rav should be consulted.
THE CONTRACTOR IS OVERCHARGING ME. WILL I VIOLATE BAL
TALIN IF I HOLD BACK PAYMENT?
When a person feels he is being overcharged, he
usually considers withholding part of the payment until the matter is
clarified. If indeed he is correct, this plan is not a problem. However, if he
is mistaken and the contractor deserves, and demands payment for, the total
amount, it means that he has violated bal talin by not paying the
contractor on time. For this reason, the Chofetz Chayim suggests always
negotiating a price with a contractor or repairman in advance.
If the repairman is uncertain how much the work will
cost, tell him before he starts that you are stipulating that he waive his
right to be paid on time (see Graz Vol. 5 pg. 890 #18). This avoids
violating the prohibition of bal talin should a dispute develop between
If this was not stipulated in advance, and a dispute
develops, discuss with a rav or posek how to proceed. Bear in
mind that if the worker is demanding payment and the contracting party is
wrong, he might end up violating a serious Torah prohibition by not paying on
It is important that people become more familiar with
the details of bal talin in order to conduct their business dealings
according to halacha. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that they
perform a mitzvah each time they pay their workers on time. Apparently, this is
not a recent phenomenon. Over a hundred years ago, the Chofetz Chayim
decried the fact that otherwise observant people were inattentive to the
observance of this mitzvah. He attributed this to ignorance of its details.
Hopefully, this article will spur people to learn more about this mitzvah and
the great reward for being attentive about its observance.