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Kedoshim – How to Pay Workers

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“A worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning” (Vayikra 19:13)

My daughter takes piano lessons every week. I understand that paying the teacher on time is a Torah mitzvah of paying hired workers. Is this mitzvah fulfilled by paying with a check, or even with a post-dated check, or is it preferable to pay specifically with cash, in order to perform the mitzvah?

The Torah obligates an employer to pay his Jewish employees with both a positive commandment of paying on time (Devarim 24:15), and a negative commandment of failing to do so (Vayikra 19:13). An employee must be paid with money (Shulchan Aruch CM 336:1): one may not pay wages with goods or land.

Tosafos (Bava Kama 9a) write further than an employer who has no money is obligated to find the money with which to pay his employees. This ruling is cited by the Shach (CM 336:4), and the Radvaz (3:458) writes that it is a full obligation. Whether or not an employer must be prepared to incur financial losses in order to procure cash is a subject of debate among Poskim. See Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Sechirus 16), Ahavas Chesed (9:7), and Pischei Choshen.

It should be noted that this mitzvah is more common than we usually assume. Whenever a person hires a cab, calls the neighbor’s daughter to baby-sit, hires a private tutor, a housemaid or a translator, and so on, he will encounter the mitzvah of paying a hired laborer. Many of us will experience the mitzvah daily, and certainly weekly. To varying degrees, we are all employers.

To answer the question of payment by means of a check we must first understand the reason for which one must pay a laborer with cash, rather than with goods. Shach (CM 332:18) writes that the standard terms for paying laborers is cash payment—an idea also stated in the Shita Mekubetzes (Bava Kama 118b; see also Rashi, who writes that one must pay cash in accordance with the stipulation made with the worker).

Pischei Teshuvah (CM 336:1), however, cites from Rashba that payment must be made in cash in order that the laborer should be able to purchase his requirements: “On that day you shall pay his hire … and his life depends on it” (Devarim 24:15).

According to the reasoning mentioned by Shach, the manner of payment will depend on the normal expectations of a particular laborer. For a taxi cab, whose payment is almost always made in cash, the mitzvah of paying laborers would obligate a cash payment, and a check would not fulfill the mitzvah.

If the driver is willing to accept a check the passenger would be saved from transgression; he would not, however, earn the credit of performing the mitzvah. If the check is paid against the driver’s will, the passenger would be transgressing a Torah prohibition (Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos vol. 3, sec. 470, part 3).

For certain workers, however, such as building contractors and tutors (such as the piano lessons mentioned in the question—but not babysitters), it is standard practice to pay by means of checks. In such cases, one would thus be able to fulfill the mitzvah of paying one’s laborer by means of a check (Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos ibid).

According to the reason given by the Pischei Teshuvah, however, the central factor determining how laborers must be paid is the spending power of the payment. In a society where checks are commonly accepted by establishments (such as in Israel), authorities have written that transferable checks are thus an acceptable method for paying laborers (see Mili De-Nezikin p. 122, citing from HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and HaRav Elyashiv shlita; Sheivet Ha-Kehati vol. 3, sec. 316). In addition, laborers in such societies are usually content to receive checks, because of their ease of transfer.

However, in societies where checks (without guarantee cards or similar methods) are not commonly accepted as payment, payment by means of a check would not be essentially comparable to a cash payment.

Yet, if the bank is open, which gives the laborer a possibility of redeeming the check for cash, a check might be sufficient to perform the mitzvah (see Ha-Cheque Be-Halachah, chap. 13, section 3). Effectively, paying with a check would be comparable to handing the laborer a key that opens a chest of money. This, however, is only true for a current check, and would not apply to a postdated check—which should therefore be avoided.

Certainly, where checks or bank transfers are the only possible means of payment, which is true for most legal establishments where careful records of payments must be kept, employers are obligated to pay the check or transfer the money on time. By doing so, the employer performs the mitzvah of paying hired laborers.

Because the fiscal system necessitates such methods of payment, the clear working agreement is that payment would not be given in cash. Even if a check is not halachically equivalent to cash, by agreeing to receive his wages by means of checks the employee effectively shifts the pay date to the time of the check’s clearance in the bank. Whenever the money is received, the employer will fulfill the mitzvah of paying his workers.

In summary:

  • All of us are employers! Whenever we use a babysitter, a taxi cab, or a private tutor, we are obligated by a mitzvas aseh and mitzvas lo-taaseh to pay the laborer on time.
  • Wherever possible, payment should be made in cash. In a society where checks are commonly accepted as an alternative to cash, one may pay with a check if money is not readily available. In order to fulfill the mitzvah, the check should be current—though no proscription is transgressed if the laborer consents to receive a post-dated check.
  • For trades in which cash is the only normal method of payment, such as babysitters and taxi cabs, one should ensure to pay cash. [Again, if the laborer agrees to receive a check, no proscription is transgressed, but neither is the mitzvah performed.]
  • If checks are the only method of payment for the particular service provided, one may certainly fulfill the mitzvah of paying the laborer with a check payment.

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