Bava Metzia 112

A problem of framing.

If you hire people to perform labor on your behalf, Jewish law requires that you pay them promptly. We’ve already seen that this applies to hourly workers. Rav Sheshet’s students want to know if it applies to another category of workers as well:

If the laborer worked as a contractor (who is paid for a completed job rather than an hourly wage), does the prohibition on delaying payment apply?

Rav Sheshet says that the prohibition does apply. In other words, just as I must pay you promptly if I hire you at an hourly rate, so too must I pay you promptly if I hire you at a fixed cost for an entire project. A beraita that is quoted on our daf suggests that the answer to the question is bit more more nuanced:

With regard to one who gave their garment to a craftsman, and the craftsman concluded the work and notified the owner that the work was complete, even if the owner delays paying the craftsman from now until ten days henceforth, they do not violate the prohibition of delaying the payment of wages.

If the craftsman gave the garment to them at midday, then once the sun has set and the owner has not paid, the owner does violate the prohibition of delaying the payment of wages.

According to the beraita, the prohibition against delaying payments applies to contractors who are paid a fixed amount to complete a project and the timing of the payment is tied to receipt of goods, not the completion of the labor.

I wonder, however, what a dry cleaner or professional framer might have to say about this. I can only imagine their frustration toward customers who drop off clothes to be laundered or artwork to be framed and fail to pick them up in a timely manner. According to the beraita (and contemporary norms), the obligation to make timely payment does not apply to their business, that is, not until the owners come to pick up their items. 

If you’re asking why the rabbis do not require customers to pick up and pay for their items in a timely manner then you are asking a good question. And, while the Gemara doesn’t address this directly, it does hint at a potential answer: When an object comes into a person’s possession, the act of changing it may make them the owners of the item. We learned about this when we explored the obligation of thieves to return the item that they stole; if the thief alters an item they become its owner and, from that point forward, are obligated to make financial restitution instead of returning the item. 

While the manner in which a craftsman comes into possession of an object is above board, some talmudic rabbis hold that when the craftsman alters the item (e.g. frames a piece of art or engraves a metal utensil) they come to own it. And, when the original owner comes to collect it, they are, in essence, buying it back rather than paying for the work that the craftsman did. Because the craftsman’s ownership was temporary, the transaction between merchant and customer falls under the category of loans and is not subject to the prohibition against delaying payment.

On the other hand, the rabbis’ reasoning may be far more practical in that it is much easier for the rabbinic courts to step in and force someone to pay for a repaired item that they have already picked up than it is to require them to pick it up in the first place.

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