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Shabbat Parashat Vayigash 5775

P'ninat Mishpat: Bal Talin When Worker is Working for Himself

(based around Shoel Umeishiv II:III:42)

[This response appears to be based on a real story. Although it is not the classic monetary dispute with which we usually deal in this column, it appealed to me enough to want to include.]


Reuven gave fabric to Shimon, a tailor, to make clothes, but the tailor was to keep the clothes for himself. The generous Reuven even promised to pay Shimon for making the clothes. The question is: if Reuven is late in paying Shimon, does he violate the prohibition of bal talin (paying a worker late)?

The Torah, in describing this prohibition says, “Lo talin peulat sachir itcha ad boker,” which Rashi explains as not having the work of the worker “lie by you” until morning. We would have expected it to say not to have his pay lie by you. (Some commentaries say that this is the intention, but the choice of words is telling.) It seems that the Torah is bothered by the work “lying” by the employer, for until the work is paid for, it is as if the work is stolen. One difference between the approaches is in a case like this. Shimon worked for himself, and Reuven only promised to pay him, so if Reuven does not pay on time, we would not say that Shimon’s work was lying by him.

This also explains the gemara’s discussion in Bava Metzia (112a). The gemara says that if a craftsman acquires rights in the object he improves, it is considered that he is not a worker for the person who engaged him but that when he returns the improved object, the owner becomes a debtor to the craftsman who “sold him” his part in the improved object. If, though, he is paid for the work, it turns out that the work is unpaid in the “possession” of the owner of the object, and he violates bal talin.

We can also relate the above to homiletic discussion. How can Chazal tell us that Hashem does not give reward for mitzvot in this world but in the next, if this “delay” should be a case of Hashem violating (k’v’yachol) bal talin? A midrash attributes such a complaint to Moshe Rabbeinu when Hashem refused him from entering Eretz Yisrael. Some say that only Moshe had a complaint because the rest of the nation was promised reward through an agent (Moshe), in which case there is no bal talin. According to our thesis, the question is answered simply. We do not do an action that is “by Hashem.” Rather, He just promised reward for good things we do, in general.

This also sheds light on the Rambam’s distinction between mitzvot to Hashem, for which we are not promised reward in this world, and mitzvot for people, for which we are. This makes sense since only regarding help for our fellow man are we doing work for someone (the recipient), at Hashem’s behest, in which case the mitzva to “pay on time” applies.

This also explains the midrash on Ruth that says that she was blessed that Hashem will pay her reward for her good deeds, with the Targum saying that she would receive it in this world. This does not contradict the concept that reward for mitzvot is in the next world because that applies to born Jews, who were born obligated in mitzvot, in which case their actions are not considered for Hashem but for their own obligation. In contrast, a convert “gives to Hashem” on some level by volunteering to do what He wants. Therefore, Hashem has reason to pay right away.

In any case, irrespective of the homiletic ideas, halachically, if Reuven promised Shimon pay for work he did for himself, delay in payment would not violate bal talin.

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