By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The events and description that you are about to read are real. The names, however, have been changed.
It was bound to happen eventually. With the penchant for Jews to engage in profit-making business ventures and with the proliferation of the selling of Aliyos in shul in order to raise money for the shul, it was only a matter of time for an enterprising individual to combine the two together.
And so it was. “Mr. Goldstein” purchased an Aliyah at auction. “Mr. Schwartz” was slow on the draw, and wanted to have the specific Aliyah where certain psukim were to be read publicly.
He later explained that the words in this section meant a lot to him and that he felt that it would be a special Segulah for him to have the Aliyah when these words were read.
Too late, he realized that “Mr. Goldstein” had purchased the Aliyah already. Schwartz approached Goldstein and offered to buy the Aliyah from him.
Goldstein $aw opportunity here. In fact, it $eem$ he $aw tremendou$ opportunity here. Goldstein offered the Aliyah back to Schwartz for an astounding ten times what he had paid for it.
What happened? Schwartz accepted Goldstein’s offer and agreed to pay him the 1000% percent profit margin that he requested.
As can be expected, when the mispallelim heard, sheer pandemonium broke out in the shul.
Some were angry and felt that no one has the right to scalp an Aliyah – they demanded that all profits go back to the shul. Others claimed that the enterprising Goldstein had the right since he had bought the Aliyah fair and square.
Bizarre though it may be, what is the halacha in such a case? Can Goldstein keep his profits? Or do we say that Goldstein must return all his profits to the shul?
There are a number of issues at play here. Firstly, the issue of Onaah arises – charging above market value for a right or an item. The Shulchan Aruch in Choshain Mishpat chapter 227 discusses the laws of overcharging for an item. If a price for something is 16.67 percent above market value then the purchaser has the right to negate the sale. Here, however, the purchaser is amenable to the transaction.
Another issue is whether the sale on a Yom Tov or Shabbos is allowed in the first place.
Finally, there is the issue of whether scalping something holy that is associated with the synagogue is in itself permitted.
Regarding the last issue, it seems that it is a debate between the Sh’yarei Kneses HaGedolah (OC 147:9) and the Olas Tamid (144:4). The original case in which these two authorities opined dealt with someone who had purchased the honor of P’sicha, the opening of the ark of the Torah, for the entire year. It seems that the total sum for this purchase was rather large and the purchaser was making monthly payments.
Unfortunately, midyear the person had passed away. What should the sons who inherit the father now do? Must they keep the honor and continue making the payments? Are the sons permitted to sell the balance of the year’s p’sichas? And what happens if the amount that they sold it for is more than is owed to the shul? May they keep the profit?
The Sh’yarei Kneses HaGedolah ruled that the sons may sell the balance of the p’sichas, the opening of the ark, and they may keep any and all profit that they make. The Olas Tamid disagreed with this ruling and writes, “Ain mistakrin b’tzedakah” – we cannot engage in business speculation with Tzedakah.
It would seem that the debate between the Sh’yarei Knesses HaGedolah and the Olas Tamid directly affects our case of Alyah scalping. The question is, however, according to whom do we rule?
This case (and the question as to which opinion we follow) was posed by Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein to Rav Elyashiv Shlita. Rav Elyashiv responded that, technically there is no reason that the purchaser cannot sell the Aliyah and make a profit. He ruled in accordance with the Sh’yarei Kneses HaGedolah. Rav Elyashiv added, however, that since the sale could only take place in the venue of the shul – then he must give them a portion of the profits. Rav Zilberstein (Meah Shearim #45) cites a ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (CM 183:6) that backs up the idea that the shul deserves a portion of the profits.