The Forgers’ Scheme
A person who wants to show a specimen of his signature to a Beis Din should not sign at the bottom of a blank page. A few years ago the Torah community in Yerushalayim was outraged when a claim was presented to a Beis Din against a respected Torah scholar. The claimant produced a promissory note for a huge amount signed by the supposed debtor and the latter certified his signature but denied borrowing the money. The dayanim appointed a special investigative team who revealed that the claimant belonged to a group of swindlers who had managed to misuse the defendant’s signature. They had discovered that he was accustomed to sign his name in the middle of the front page of every book in his large library and all they had to do was just borrow one of his books, remove the blank page and compose a promissory note above the signature.
Indeed, in our sugya Abaye recommends that anyone required to demonstrate his signature should do so at the top of a page to prevent anyone from adding a fraudulent text above it. Commenting on our sugya, the Ritva clarifies that Abaye’s warning stems from an understanding of people and foreseeing their spontaneous reaction at unexpected times. Abaye’s suspicion, after all, is actually unfounded as a person may claim he has paid a debt, even if a signed promissory note is produced against him, and he is believed unless the note is signed by witnesses. The Ritva explains, though, that Abaye foresaw a typical person’s behavior: By the nature of things, when someone is faced with a false document, his spontaneous reaction is to deny there having been any loan and subsequently he is not believed to assert that he paid the debt. The best thing to do, then, is to prevent any untoward use of one’s signature (Bava Basra 6a, Kesubos 88a, and see Shulchan „Aruch, C.M. 69:2, and the Shach, ibid, S.K. 10).
A claim based on a promissory note with no indicated amount: HaGaon Rav Mordechai Yafeh, author of the Levushim, cites an unusual event in his Levush Ir Shushan (section 48). About 420 years ago a person claimed to a Beis Din that another owed him a certain sum and, as proof, presented a blank promissory note signed by the supposed debtor, with no indicated amount. “The debtor,” he asserted, “gave me this note because he trusted me to fill in the amount he owes me.” The claimant added that were he a liar, he could have written in any sum he wanted and therefore the Beis Din should believe his demand. Still, the “Levush” immediately rejected the claim as “even a fool” would never give another a signed blank promissory note and we must assume that the defendant had lost the note, which was later found by the claimant. Concluding with a sharp warning, he declares that anyone giving another such a blank note is “merely a witless person willing to believe anyone, or insane and defined as a shotah, whose actions have no validity.”
Claiming money with a blank check: Nonetheless, the situation is different today and the above topic is relevant as people do give others signed checks with no specified amount, such as when paying a sum to be determined according to the future rate of exchange of some foreign currency. The practice is most common when borrowing from a free loan fund if the loan is repaid in installments and linked to a foreign currency. Moreover, most Gemachim lending medical apparatus or other equipment require a blank signed check. Indeed, what is the halachic validity of a monetary claim based on a signed check lacking any indicated amount?
Halachic authorities assert that if people are accustomed to give others such “open” checks, the holder of the check is believed to demand any amount. This regulation is also supported by Paragraph 19a of the national ordinance for promissory notes, which states that if a note lacks an essential detail, the holder may fill in the detail as he wishes. It follows, then, that the holder is believed to present a claim against the signer of a check missing a specified amount (see Mishpatecha LeYa‟akov, I, 22:6).
Who should Pay
for a Clock for the Teacher?
Our Mishna states the regulation that the person benefiting from a document must defray the costs of its being written. A borrower pays the expenses of drawing up a promissory note as he benefits from the loan and a purchaser defrays the costs of a bill of sale or deed, which is delivered to him as proof of his purchase and protects his rights. The author of Meshech Chochmah (at the end of Parashas Behar) supports this halachah with a passage from Yirmiyahu (32:10), recounting that the prophet bought a field from his cousin Chanamel ben Shalum, attesting “And I wrote the document and signed” even though the seller is generally assumed to write the bill of sale. The verse indicates, then, that Yirmiyahu paid the scribe, as stated in our Mishna.
An obligation to contribute to charity used as bail: The scope of the above halachah is seen from a question asked of the Rosh by his son Rabbi Yechiel. A certain Beis Din suspected that Shimon would not appear for a Din Torah scheduled for a particular time and commanded him to submit a guarantee. Shimon’s friend then signed a document before the Beis Din that if Shimon failed to appear as demanded, he would donate 1,000 coins to charity. The question arose, though, as to who should pay the costs of writing the document: Shimon, his litigant, or the guarantor. At first, the Rosh ruled that Shimon’s litigant must pay as the guarantee is to his benefit. He later discovered, though, that there was no other litigant but that “Shimon had sinned and the community wanted to imprison him till his punishment will be decided.” The Rosh then changed his decision and ruled that Shimon, as the one benefiting from the guarantee, must pay the price of the writing (Responsa of the Rosh, Kelal 13:2-3).
About 500 years ago an argument arose between a teacher and a certain pupil’s parent. The teacher was hired to instruct the child for a few hours each day and needed a clock in the room to know when the session ended (pocket watches had not yet been invented). The father claimed that the teacher must pay for the clock but the teacher insisted that the father bear the expense. Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin, author of Terumas HaDeshen, ruled that the father should buy the clock, but his student, Rabbi Yisrael bar Rav Chayim of Bruna, questioned the decision: Apparently, just as one who hires a tailor to sew a garment need not buy him a needle, and just as one who hires a scribe need not provide him with a pen as all artisans are hired with their tools, the teacher should pay for the clock required for his work.
The difference between teachers and tailors: Rav Yisrael of Bruna clarified his mentor’s ruling by explaining the difference between a teache r’s clock and a tailo r’s needle. A tailor without a needle is no tailor and a penless scribe is no scribe, as they cannot practice their trades without such tools. A teacher needs no clock for his work, as he only requires the ability to speak and explain. A clock is merely meant to tell him when to finish his task. We cannot force him to pay for it as he can claim that he can estimate the elapse of time without it. If the father refuses to believe him, says Rav Yisrael of Bruna, “Buy a clock and I’ll teach by it.”
The Collection of Legal Costs
In civil courts the losing party is charged for legal expenses, generally including the court costs and the winning party’s lawye r’s fees, etc. How does the Torah view such costs and how does a Beis Din act according to halachah?
Our sugya explains that the secretaries of a Beis Din would record the litigants’ claims, as Rashbam comments, “so that they would not change their claims” (s.v. Shitrei ta’anta) and our Mishna rules that the expenses involved in writing the records must be shared equally by both litigants. The Ribash deducts from there (Responsa, 222) that the general costs of a Beis Din should also be equally shared by the litigants rather than be borne exclusively by the losing party. Both the claimant and defendant need the services of the Beis Din and should divide the expenses entailed by their case.
An uncooperative defendant pays the extra costs he causes: Still, the Ribash emphasizes that if the defendant is uncooperative and causes the claimant to suffer needless expenses, such as the issuance of a “notice of refusal” (kesav seiruv), he is regarded as guilty of causing damage by negligence and must defray such expenses. Moreover, if the Beis Din discovers that a claim is baseless and only intended to hassle the defendant, the latter is exempt from all court costs and they are then borne exclusively by the claimant (Yeshuos Yisrael by the Gaon of Kutna, C.M. 14, in Ein Mishpat, s.k.14). Nonetheless, we have yet to clarify if in such cases a defendant may also demand the claimant to defray his own costs, such as payment to a rabbinical court advocate (to’en rabani) or the like. Halachic authorities indicate that the claimant should not be so charged as such expenses are not unavoidable and a defendant may represent himself. Hiring a to’en rabani is optional and the costs involved are not considered damage caused by the claimant.
A practical implication of the above discussion is that if a Beis Din allows a person to present a claim at a civil court and he wins his case, resulting in the defendant’s obligation to pay for the claimant’s lawyer, then the claimant must return to Beis Din to ask whether he may collect that sum from the defendant.
The Tree That Wasn’t
HaGaon Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Lakewood, was known to be extremely heedful to guard the truth. Once he was shown an advertisement with a sketch of the Yeshivah including the surrounding trees. He counted the trees, though, and found that three had been drawn instead of the actual two and not wanting to lend a hand to the misrepresentation, banned the picture. “It’s a falsification,” he said, “and the Torah is a Torah of truth and any method to maintain it must rely on the strict truth.”