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Shabbat Parashat Vayeishev 5776

P'ninat Mishpat: The Price of a Practical Joke

(based on Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 176)

Case: Reuven, a shochet in a certain town, purposely made Shimon, a respected man from a different town, look foolish. Reuven’s wife gave birth to a girl. Reuven, who knew that Shimon is very excited about serving as a mohel, invited Shimon to perform a mila for “his son who wasn’t.” Shimon travelled four hours to perform the mila, and when he showed up in shul to do so, he was the laughing stock of the community. The rabbi of Shimon’s town suggests that Reuven should be removed from his post of shochet over this behavior. 


Ruling: There are two questions: what principles did Reuven violate with his trick? What financial circumstances, if any, should there be for his behavior?

Reuven violated the prohibition of “lo tonu,” not to abuse another with one’s speech. This is parallel to the gemara’s (Bava Metzia 58b) case of one who wanted to buy wheat and someone told him to go to Ploni to buy, even though he knew that Ploni does not sell. The gemara says the misinformer violates lo tonu (see Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228:4). The clear implication is that the violation takes place even when the misinformed did not suffer a loss due to the false information, but just because the trick is upsetting. In our case, Reuven transgressed this prohibition, which Chazal (Bava Metzia 59a) equated to idol worship (in some ways).

We proceed to the monetary realm. The halachot of hiring someone to do a job that turns out to not be feasible (see Shulchan Aruch, CM 333:1) refer to one who did so accidentally (the gemara does not usually bring such halachot in the context of evil people). If one hired a person to do a mitzva­-related job, e.g., to teach his son Torah, and it turns out it cannot be performed, he who made the request has to pay the worker a full salary. We do not take off for the fact that he did not have to perform the action because one would rather perform a mitzva than sit idle.

The value given for the mitzva of mila [albeit in a quite different context of one who was slated to do an actual mila, even for free, and they did not allow him to do so] is 10 gold coins. Some opinions say that each beit din should estimate the matter according to its context (ibid. 382:1). I don’t know how to factor into this case the price of travelling the four hours.

It is true that we do not make people pay the 10-gold-coin penalty in our days, as we lack batei din with full authority. The Shulchan Aruch (CM 1:5) says that even so, we can put the guilty party in cherem until he reasonably appeases the other side. Included in the classical cherem is not allowing him into shul and not performing a brit mila for his son (see Rama, Yoreh Deah 334:6). However, the government does not allow us to put people in cherem. When one factors in the severity of Reuven’s practical joke against Shimon, one can certainly remove him from his post as a shochet until he appeases Shimon monetarily and repents for his chutzpa. This is on condition that beit din investigated the facts of the case and concludes that the situation was as it has been described.


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