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Shabbat Parashat Vayishlach| 5765
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Question: I do editing work for papers that are being presented for acceptance by scholarly publications. I am trying to work out a system for charging which is fair both for my clients and for me. The problem is that it is very difficult to anticipate how long a given paper will take to edit. I think that the most equitable system is to charge by the hour, but most clients demand to know a fixed rate in advance. So, I usually charge according to a system I have developed for estimates. However, sometimes I receive significantly less than I deserve, because the work was more difficult than anticipated, while other times, the opposite is true. I feel bad taking more than I deserve, but if I return money when I came out ahead and don’t ask for more when I estimate to my detriment, I’ll be losing out. What should I do?
Answer: Our favorite questions are monetary ones that are asked not to try to gain money but to make sure that the money a person has is rightfully his.
The halachic issue involved is ona’ah (overpricing), a Torah prohibition with monetary applications, including returning the extra money or voiding the agreement when the ona’ah is significant enough. Among the cases where the full laws do not apply are the sale of land and the wages of a worker, which are indirectly compared to the former (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 227: 29,33). However, when one is paid by the job (as you usually are) and not by time, then the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.:36) rules that the regular laws apply. In truth, even regarding lands, the prohibition of overpricing applies, with the difference being in the monetary ramifications. Since you want to do the right thing, such a leniency is irrelevant for you.
You imply that one might look at the fairness of pricing on average over the course of the business, in general, as opposed to the appropriateness of each, individual fee. Of course, if we determine that a certain price is unfairly high, it doesn’t help that someone else got the better of you a different time. Even if the same person got a good deal in the past, if you decided not to demand compensation at the time (thus, being mochel), you cannot make up for it by charging too much later. However, the fact that you often underprice is cogent for the following reason.
Overpricing is forbidden when one goes beyond the accepted range of prices. Several factors help determine what the range is. One of them is the chance that the work will be much greater than average. Consider the following example. A taxi driver usually receives $40 on his meter to take someone to midtown Manhattan. If he takes someone on a fixed rate, he has a right to ask for more than the median rate, because frequently he can sit in traffic for two hours. His set price of $50 represents the market rate, which takes the opportunity and risks into account. Thus, as long as your estimates are within the market range and your clients agree in advance, you do not need worry about fluctuations in either direction and can accept payment as agreed.
You should, though, consider the root of your occasional overestimation of the work. If you find a given paper easier than expected, you may have been concentrating extra well or it is your good fortune that you received a relatively easy paper. (See an analogous, but not identical case- Shulchan Aruch, CM 334:3). But if you realize that your estimate was inherently flawed (i.e. you miscounted the number of pages, you used the key for non-native English speakers for a native one) it is appropriate to adjust the fee downward. The fact that you also make mistakes to your detriment does not morally justify keeping a flawed estimate in your favor. (One could argue that the flawed price might still be within the range of market value or present after-the-fact reasons not to have to change an estimate. However, that approach does not befit the level of integrity you so laudably strive for). Your willingness to forgo questionably deserved money should help you continue to find favor in the eyes of Hashem … and present and future clients.)
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