Rabbi Meir Orlean
Mr. Lowy owned a bungalow home. Since the house was not used all winter, he usually hired a woman to clean it before the family arrived.
This year his regular cleaning woman was not available, so he employed another woman. “I’ll send you the address in a text message,” Mr. Lowy told her. “You can get a key from the caretaker, who has a master key for all the bungalows. I’ll pay you tomorrow when I arrive.”
The woman cleaned the home, and at the end of the day reported that she had finished.
The Lowys arrived the following day. “The house is filthy!” Mrs. Lowy exclaimed. “It doesn’t look like the woman cleaned it at all!”
Mr. Lowy called the woman immediately. “What’s going on?” he asked. “The house is filthy, and wasn’t touched. What did you do?”
“I don’t understand,” said the woman. “I was there all day yesterday. I left the house spic and span! Every window and every tile shone!”
“There must be some mistake,” Mr. Lowy said. “Which house did you clean?”
“Let me look at the message,” said the woman. “Number 24, you wrote.”
“Oh, I meant number 25,” said Mr. Lowy. “I must have made a typo.”
“Regardless, I did the work that you asked,” said the woman. “I’m entitled to my full pay.”
“The owner of number 24, Mr. Singer, will be here shortly,” replied Mr. Lowy. “He should pay you.”
An hour later, the Singers arrived. “It’s amazing how shiny the windows are this year,” Mrs. Singer noted as they approached the house. “It looks as if someone cleaned them!”
Just then, Mr. Lowy came by. “Welcome!” he said. “I have a surprise for you. I ordered a cleaning lady, but gave her your address by mistake. You owe her $150.”
“I appreciate this, but we always clean by ourselves,” replied Mr. Singer. “The summer is expensive enough; I can’t afford the extra expense!”
Mr. Lowy and Mr. Singer came before Rabbi Dayan.
“The Gemara (B.M. 76a) teaches that if someone instructed an employee to work in his neighbor’s property, the employer is liable for the salary,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “However, he can demand reimbursement from the neighbor for the value that he benefited him” (C.M. 336:1).
“I didn’t order the cleaning,” argued Mr. Singer. “Why should I have to pay anything?”
“One who enhances another’s property, even without being instructed to, is entitled to compensation,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “This is known as yored l’toch sedei chaveiro or neheneh. The amount of compensation due – whether the full value or just the expenditures – depends on whether the improvement was warranted or not” (C.M. 375:4).
“The house needed the cleaning,” acknowledged Mr. Singer, “but we always clean it ourselves.”
“If the owner typically does the work himself,” said Rabbi Dayan, “even when the work is warranted, we merely evaluate how much it is worth to the owner to not have to toil” (Rama 375:4).
“Even so,” continued Rabbi Dayan, “in this case, Mr. Singer can refuse to compensate Mr. Lowy for two reasons.”
“Why is that?” asked Mr. Lowy. “I spared him hours of work!”
“Some authorities maintain that yored l’toch sedei chaveiro applies only when the person knowingly improves his neighbor’s property,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “However, if the person did the work thinking that the property was his, the neighbor is not required to pay” (Nesivos 236:7).
“Furthermore, some write that an enhanced appearance that is not essential, such as whitewashing, is not considered a capital improvement requiring compensation,” added Rabbi Dayan. “Certainly, routine cleaning is not a capital improvement, since it will get dirty again shortly (Rama 375:7, Shach 391:2). There may be a difference, though, in this regard, between a bungalow intended for the owner’s use and one intended for rent, since a clean apartment is worth more to rent that a dirty one.”
“Thus,” concluded Rabbi Dayan, “Mr. Singer cannot be required to compensate Mr. Lowy for the cleaning.”