Q. After a recent snowstorm I went out shoveling walks and driveways. I cleared one medium-size driveway that usually costs about fifteen dollars, but the owner cheated me and gave me only three! Am I at fault for not agreeing on a price in advance? AE
A. Of course it is always best to avoid understandings by making all terms clear in advance. However, even if there is no negotiation the worker is still entitled to be paid according to whatever is customary.
In your case, you should have politely explained to the owner that a driveway like his usually costs fifteen dollars to clear. In fact it’s not too late; you can still go back now and make your case!
At the same time, you should judge the owner favorably. “Judge your fellow man with righteousness (Leviticus 19:15). " Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the going rates -- maybe he remembers what he used to get for shoveling snow when he was a youngster, before five decades of inflation eroded the value of the dollar! Perhaps it was a mere oversight and he meant to give you more. Finally, you have to be prepared for the possibility that he will sincerely claim that you were fairly paid; in this case you will have to be prepared to prove your claim.
The basic ethical principal here is that the obligation to pay does not stem primarily from the agreement; it mainly comes from the benefit that was caused. Indeed, even if there is no agreement at all a person can be made to pay for a benefit; otherwise he is taking advantage of what we call in English “unjust enrichment.”
This monetary principle is only one instance of a great religious principle. Despite the immense of important of the agreement, the covenant, made at Sinai to keep God’s commandments, the most powerful motivator is not agreement but acknowledgment of the multitude of benefits that He provides us. The feeling of gratitude is one of the surest paths to motivate us to God’s service. A person who is not an ingrate, one who is used to acknowledging and requiting the good others do to him, is easily inspired by the innumerable graces granted by God to be passionately devoted to perform His will.
SOURCES: Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 333; Duties of the Heart, introduction to gate three.
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