By the Bais Hora'ah
Q. Reuven found out that his friend Shimon is in such severe financial straits that even the grocery store was refusing to extend his credit any further. Out of a deep sense of compassion, he approached the grocer and negotiated with him to forgive part of Shimon’s debt, provided that the other portion would be paid that same day.
Reuven excitedly phoned Shimon to inform him of this development, but could not reach him. Concerned that the day would pass and the deal would be retracted, he rushed to the grocery and laid out the money to the grocer to cancel the entire debt.
When he told Shimon what he had done, Shimon said that since in halachah, he is not required to repay this “loan” at all, because he hadn’t asked Reuven to pay off his debt, he would repay him when he came into some more money in the future.
Is Shimon correct in his assertion?
And if he is, can Reuven demand that the grocer return the amount he laid out for Shimon, on the grounds that he made this payment under the erroneous assumption that he would be entitled to immediate reimbursement from Shimon?
A. The halachah is that if Levi borrowed money from Yehuda, and Yissachar pays off Levi’s debt without consulting him, and then asks Levi to repay him, Levi is not required to pay (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 128:1 with Shach 5; Shu”t Ksav Sofer Choshen Mishpat 18).
There are divergent reasons given for this halachah, however, and the answer to our question depends on which logic we apply.
Some explain that since Yissachar undertook to pay off the loan without consulting with Levi beforehand, we can assume that he gifted the money to Levi, for the sake of the mitzvah alone (Shach 8). Based on this logic, some rule that if Levi wasn’t around, and Yehudah offered to forego a portion of the loan if the remainder was paid immediately, and that spurred Yissachar to take action without consulting with Levi first, Levi is required to pay. Since our assumption that Yissachar paid off the loan for the sake of the mitzvah was predicated on the fact that he did not discuss the matter with Levi first, that logic would not apply if Levi was not available for such a discussion (Pnei Yehoshua, Bava Kamma 58a; Erech Shai 265).
In our case, since Reuven could not reach Shimon before he paid down the debt in order to avoid losing the negotiated settlement, we have no proof that he wanted to gift the money to Shimon, and Shimon is required to pay.
Others explain that the reason Levi is not required to reimburse Yissachar is that he is not considered to have benefited directly from Yissachar. Rather, we view Yissachar’s involvement as akin to someone who has chased away a lion (mavriach ari) from another person’s flock, thereby preventing damage. In such a case, the owner of the flock is not required to pay the lion-chaser because he has not received any tangible benefit. Similarly, Yissachar is considered to have “chased away” Yehudah, but his actions did not bring Levi any new benefit that he didn’t already have when he initially received the loan and had the funds at his disposal. The fact that Yehudah is no longer demanding payment is not considered a direct benefit (Nedarim 33a; see Shach ibid. 6). Furthermore, when a borrower owes money, repaying that loan is not considered a financial loss, but rather an absolution of an obligation that rested on his shoulders as long as he owed the debt (Tosafos Bava Kamma 58a s.v. Iy Nami). Moreover, Levi can claim that he might have convinced Yehudah to forgive the loan, and even if Yehudah is prodding him for payment, it’s possible that some of Levi’s friends would have paid it for him (Shulchan Aruch ibid.; Shach 4).
According to the latter approaches, there is no absolute obligation for Levi to pay, although we do have to consider whether he should pay latzeis yedei Shomayim (to avoid retribution in Heaven). Radvaz (Shu”t 4:250) writes that according to the approach that Yissachar gifted the money to Levi, he has no obligation to pay even latzeis yedei Shomayim, but it seems that according to the other approaches it might be appropriate to go beyond the letter of the law and reimburse him (see Chiddushim Ubi’urim, Kesubos 108a).
Returning to our case, there are no grounds to obligate Shimon to reimburse Reuven immediately, since, as we have seen, he might not be required to pay him back altogether.
Regarding whether the grocer would be required to return the money to Reuven on the grounds that he made the payment under the mistaken impression that he would be able to recoup the money from Shimon, unless Reuven clearly stipulated that he was making the payment only on condition that Shimon would pay him back immediately, the poskim rule that the grocer is not required to return the money (see Knesses Hagedolah 128; Mahadurah Basrah Hagohos HaTur 6; Divrei Geonim 62:18; Erech Shai 128:1).