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The Jewish Ethicist: Cheating the Cheater

The Jewish Ethicist: Cheating the Cheater

If I demand a receipt for a "cash-only" job, who's cheating whom?

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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.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at www.besr.org.

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

Published: May 4, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Anonymous, May 7, 2002 12:00 AM

Painter is not off the hook

It's interesting that the amount was $500, since the limit for payment to an individual before you must issue them a 1099 is $600 (I think I got the amount right.) So the buyer is under no legal obligation to report this to the government, but for a slightly higher amount, he would be. It remains the painter's obligation to pay taxes. If he is doing what we think he is doing, then he is taking a calculated risk that he will not get caught by the IRS. If he lies about his income on his tax form, it's my understanding that he can go to jail for tax fraud.
It wasn't clear to my why the buyer in the obove example even needs a receipt -is it a business expense?

A client of mine engages a cleaning service to which he pays almost $3,000/year, all cash and does not give them a 1099. Some of the workers may be illegal immigrants and this may be the only way they can work. In order to charge some of this to his business (home based), he writes checks to cash several times a year, does not exceed the $600 and puts it down as Office expense. It feels borderline for ethics, but I haven't thought it thru.

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