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Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5775

P'ninat Mishpat: Attempt to Limit the Duration of a Rabbis Contract

(based on Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 5)

Case: A community sent a request to the Chatam Sofer to agree with their claim that they could reduce their rabbi’s weekly salary of 20 gold coins after three years on the job. Members of the lay leadership had signed on a contract that the rabbi wrote, which stated that the salary was for as long as he remained. However, they claimed that it was orally agreed that it was only for three years and that people signed without being aware of what the rabbi had written.

 

Ruling: I can find nothing wrong with the obligation as found in the document. An employment agreement into an open-ended future is valid (see Shach, CM 60:11). The claim that the written word is not true to the agreement is unacceptable. The Rashba writes that even if one who obligates himself with his signature can prove that he is not able to read the document he signed, his signature confirms that which is written, as he can be assisted by others as well. In a case where witnesses sign, we apply the rule that witnesses would not sign unless they knew that the one who obligated himself understood what was written in the document. (There is a difference between the two contexts in that when one signs his own contract, even tangential pieces of information are included in his admission, whereas when witnesses sign, it is only regarding the main topic at hand.) Therefore in this case, not only are the community representatives who signed bound by the document, but even those who did not sign can be assumed to have been consulted by those who signed on their behalf.

Another factor is that there is an assumption that the rabbi would not have the gall to write in a publicly signed document something that contradicts the agreement that had just been made. Also, the fact that for three years there were no complaints about the document is a sign that even those who did not sign did not have complaints about what their colleagues had signed. If they never made themselves aware of what was written in the contract, they are responsible for their own negligence.

The above is true for any employment agreement between a community and its employee. Regarding a rabbi, we can apply the Rambam’s (Shekalim 4:7) ruling that those holding rabbinical positions are to be supported by the community according to their needs, including those of their wife and children, even if the rabbi does not want to accept the money. It appears that the Rambam is hinting at a case where the rabbi’s household grew during his time in office, which might have made him feel it is unfair to raise his salary. Even in that case, the community is responsible to provide for his household as it presently is. Twenty gold coins is a low salary by our time’s standards. Thus, even if there were no contract, I cannot understand how the community would think to lower the rabbi’s salary beneath that rate, when, if anything, it should be raised. This is all the more true when the rabbi is a great scholar and a humble man, who by all measures is deserving of the community’s support. May treating him properly bring good tidings to your community!

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