By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
We see it in Boro Park, Brooklyn, Jerusalem, Israel and even Far Rockaway, New York. [Litvaks will forgive the Chasidish spelling and pronunciation of the title of this article.] It is the ubiquitiousness of the word “Shrab!” in grocery stores throughout religious Jewish neighborhoods. What does it mean?
In the vernacular it means, “Please, sir, will you kindly write down the total grocery bill in your accounts receivable notebook? Thank you, so much.”
This one word replacement for the above request can be heard it from husbands, wives, and even little girls who do the family grocery shopping.
The halachic question is what would happen if the family disputes the amount indicated in the grocer’s notebook? What if the father says, “I am sorry, this is not my bill?” Does he still have to pay?
The Shulchan Aruch Choshain Mishpat chapter 91 deals with the believability of a store owner and his notebook. The Shaivet HaKehasi, a responsa work published by a noted Dayan in the Belze community in Israel, (5:268) cites the Beer Haitev (91:16) who rules that a store owner is only believed regarding his own accounting. However, when his notebook would cause someone else to give money, he does not have believability. The Pischei Teshuvah 91:9 rules in the same manner.
Here, argues the Shaivet HaKehasi, our case is slightly different. In the past, the customer had authorized the store owner to write down the amount that he owed in the store keeper’s notebook. The customer did so without need of his own signature. In doing so, the customer indicated his willingness to trust the store keeper.
To answer our question then, if the father says, “I am sorry, this is not my bill,” – he must still pay it.
If, however, the customer had previously renegotiated the terms and stated that, for the future, he only authorized billings that were signed by him or a family member then, in fact, he would not be required to pay.
Regarding all that has been stated above, it seems quite clear that these explanations and halachic positions are correct.
Rav Shammai Gross Shlita, of Kiryas Belze and author of the Shaivet HaKehasi takes the idea even further in a ruling, that in this author’s opinion, is rather controversial. He writes that if the customer did re-negotiate the terms and stipulated that it is only valid if accompanied by his or a family members signature, and the store owner wrote down a bill for this customer without the customer’s signature, then the customer is exempt from paying. He further writes that there is no obligation to pay even to be yotzi midinei shamayim – even to fulfill one’s obligation in Heaven.
Rabbi Gross claims that it is tantamount to a stipulation that he would not have to pay for these items. Rabbi Gross further states that he presented his conclusions before the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Belze Yeshiva in Israel, Rabbi Shmuel Rosengarten. It seems that Rabbi Rosengarten had agreed with his conclusions.
The position is highly questionable because of the laws of Onaas Mamon – the principle of overcharging. The Shulchan Aruch Choshain Mishpat chapter 227 rules quite clearly that when a storeowner overcharges or undercharges above or below market value – the sale is invalid. In our case, when the customer does not have to pay for the items that he took, then, in this author’s opinion, it would be considered Onaas Mamon – a case of underpaying for items.
If the overcharging or undercharging was more than 16.7 percent of the market value then the sale is deemed invalid (SA Choshain Mishpat 227:2). In our case, it would thus be deemed an invalid sale and either the items must be returned or the amount must be paid if the customer knew that he had taken the items. If he did not know that he had taken the items, but is unsure, then, while it is true that he would not be legally responsible to pay, he does have a Dinei SHamayim – a Heavenly obligation to pay in such an instance.
Since the customer would not be paying at all according to Rabbi Gross’s conclusions, this would clearly be a case where the undercharging exceeds 16.7 percent of market value. Another question arises as to how one would determine the market value of an item in our contemporary society where most items are sold by retail vendors outside of a typical marketplace that was commonplace in the times of Chazal.
Some authorities have written that since the market conditions have changed so significantly, the idea of Onaas Mammon is no longer applicable except for extreme situations (See Pischei Choshain on Choshain Mishpat Chapter 227). Other authorities rule that one takes the highest prices of the market and calculates the 16.7 percent above and beyond that figure.
There are, however, items in which the price is stable in all outlets and, therefore, the principles of Onaas Mamon would still apply across the board. A New York Times newspaper, for example, still has a set pre-determined price. If a store would overcharge for this newspaper it would constitute Onaas Mammon.
It should be noted that a store may charge for the additional effort involved in bringing the item to a remote market. Therefore, if a store upstate charges too much for a Newspaper this would not constitute Onaas Mamon. It should also be noted that it is even forbidden to overcharge less than the 16.7 percent amount, it is just that the transaction does not reverse under such circumstances.
In conclusion, we see that a customer who authorizes a store owner to write down a bill, makes himself liable for any item written down in the store owner’s notebook. It might be prudent to insist that it be accompanied by a signature. Recently, however, new technology has caused this solution to be rather difficult. Many stores have installed computerized systems that will not allow a signature authorization. It is our further conclusion that if the store owner erroneously neglected to demand a signature the customer is still responsible in Shamayim, from Heaven, to pay the balance of the bill.
The author may be reached at email@example.com.