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Shabbat Parashat Pinchas 5775

P'ninat Mishpat: Sanctions Against One Who Might Have Altered a Receipt

(based on Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 39)

Case: Reuven borrowed 600 gold coins from Shimon and returned 500.  Reuven had a claim against Shimon that, he believed, exempted him from paying the last 100, but he could not prove it in beit din. It was decided that Reuven would make four quarterly payments of 25 gold coins. Reuven has a valid receipt for one payment, but they dispute a second payment. Reuven claims that they decided he would make one more payment of 70 coins and be forgiven the rest and presented a receipt for 70 coins. Shimon said only 25 was paid and claims the second receipt was forged. Shimon paid (100 gold coins) for an expert in Vienna, who confirmed that the number 25 was replaced by the number 70. Reuven explains that since he and Shimon met in the market far from where Shimon kept the original document, Shimon made the change to the receipt and promised to bring the document to be ripped up later. Shimon demands, in addition to payment of the loan, reimbursement for the expense of the expert and that beit din disqualify Reuven from serving as a witness or swearing in the future.


Ruling: It is not clear who initiated hiring the expert. If the matter was taken to the non-Jewish courts, Shimon does not deserve reimbursement. If beit din authorized it, he is entitled to expenses if he can prove how much he paid and beit din agrees the amount is reasonable (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 14:5). It is distressing that 100 gold coins were spent on a dispute over 50.

Realize that while a receipt with an erasure is inadmissible, Reuven still has a claim that he paid the entire amount due, and he could force Shimon to swear that he did not receive payment. Although one who has been proven to be trying to forge a document in a certain case can no longer make unproven claims in the case, here it has not been proved that Reuven forged anything, as his version of the story is plausible. If Shimon did not win the case outright, he cannot demand expenses from Reuven, although it is possible that the disqualification of the receipt is considered losing, regarding expenses.

Reuven’s disqualification to serve as a witness in the future should not be Shimon’s affair (see S’ma 33:25). This is even if the disqualification is a penalty on the one who lied, and certainly if it is just a legal fact. In any case, it is not clear that Reuven is liable for censure, as we do not know that the forgery was his doing. While there is a concept that we penalize the one who is “holding” the matter of sin (see Kiddushin 56b), that is when we know that he sinned (just that another person also did). However, since Reuven’s story is plausible, we cannot disqualify him without proof. Actually, even if he did alter the receipt, since we know that he believed that the whole obligation to pay was not true, improperly trying to get out of the payment does not necessarily mean he can never be trusted again. As a matter of fact, the gemara (Ketubot 36b) brings an opinion that one who forged a document can swear on the matter at hand, and while we do not allow that, we do say that that he is believed in other cases.

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