The Jewish Ethicist: Cheating the Cheater
If I demand a receipt for a "cash-only" job, who's cheating whom?
Q. I agreed to a $500 estimate to have my apartment painted. When the job was done, the painter made a fuss about giving a receipt, claiming he gave me a "cash-only" estimate. I discovered that other house painters in my area also work on a "cash-only" basis. Should I agree to a compromise? ARM
A. This column often advises, "You shouldn't have gotten into this situation in the first place." Most misunderstandings are best resolved before the job is done, not afterward! But in this case I can hardly blame you. Why should a customer routinely consider the possibility that a merchant is engaging in tax fraud?
There is no question the house painter is to blame for the awkward situation that ensued. It is his legal and ethical responsibility to pay taxes; if he is trying to evade them, the least he can do is to point out explicitly that his estimate applies only to "cash-only" jobs.
Still, the ethical approach of Judaism to these situations can be summed up as: "Fix the problem, not the blame." Jewish law generally rejects a punitive approach to wrongdoing. When someone acts improperly, Jewish law doesn't advocate turning the other cheek, but neither does it advocate taking self-righteous advantage of someone else's misdeed. Rather, the wrongdoing needs to be acknowledged and then the sides should do the best they can to negotiate a fair outcome.
For example, anyone who steals is certainly obligated to return any ill-gotten gains. But Jewish law doesn't prescribe any kind of imprisonment or corporal punishment for stealing. And in a close parallel to your case, if the worker fraudelently misleads the employer into agreeing to an unusually high salary by telling him that the higher amount is standard, the employer doesn't have to pay the higher amount but still has to pay whatever really is accepted; the devious worker is not rewarded for lying, but he is not penalized either.
This is parallel to the Jewish theological approach. According to Jewish tradition, a person can't get full Divine forgiveness for sins against other people until the victim is given recompense. We don't believe that God lets us off the hook without proper repentance. But we also don't believe that God is vindictive. Rather, once a person has properly repented, including making appropriate recompense, then He freely forgives the penitent. "As I live, says the Lord God, I don't desire the death of the sinner but rather that he should return from his sin and live." (Ezekiel 33:11.)
We should try to follow His example. You were right to demand a receipt, and not just ignore the painter's tax evasion. At the same time, the painter doesn't deserve to be punished and receive inadequate payment for a job which was after all properly done.
If you are convinced that other house painters get more than $500 for similar jobs when they give receipts, the fairest thing is to offer the house painter some compromise. A good suggestion would be to pay him the minimum other painters get for similar jobs when they give receipts.
SOURCES: Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 348:2, 332:4 in Rema; Orach Chaim 606:1.
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