A PRICE AGREED UPON UNDER PRESSURE
Q: My car recently broke down in a remote area, and without access to Chaveirim or AAA membership, I had no choice but to call a local towing company to take me to the nearest service station. The tow-truck operator gave me the price on his arrival, and although I thought it was exorbitant and tried to negotiate a lower fee, he would not budge. Having no other choice, I instructed him to begin working.
Upon arrival at the service station 45 minutes later, I tried again to negotiate a discount on his steep fee. I told him that it was grossly unfair of him to take advantage of a stranded customer and that I believed I was entitled to a reduction. He angrily replied that the price was the going rate, and that it was irrelevant in any case since I had agreed to pay it before he towed. Not wanting any trouble from him or his friends, I reluctantly paid the fee.
After contemplating the incident for a few days, I began wondering whether I should even have attempted to renegotiate the fee after I had agreed to pay it. Although I had only agreed to the price under pressure, perhaps I was halachically bound to follow my initial agreement. I am also concerned that perhaps my conduct caused a chillul Shem Shamayim.
What should I have done?
A: The Gemara (1) tells of an individual who, while running for his life, came to the bank of a river. His pursuers would soon find him, and he therefore had to cross the river immediately. Having no boat of his own, he was forced to offer the ferry conductor a fortune of money to take him across. Although the ferry owner only agreed to take him for the prearranged price, the Gemara states that he was only obligated to pay the regular ferry rate upon reaching his destination. This is because the exorbitant fee was promised under duress, and an insincere offer does not halachically bind the customer. (2)
Although we see that an unfair price agreed upon under immense pressure is not necessarily binding, (3) one cannot assume that your scenario is similar. One obvious difference is that it is quite possible that the standard rate for towing in remote areas is actually much higher than it would be on a regulated, well-traveled highway. Although that standard price is based on the desperate need of a stranded customer who has few, if any, choices in such a situation, it is nevertheless the going rate in that location. It would therefore be acceptable, from the halachic standpoint, for the tow-truck operator to charge such a fee (a bottle of water in the desert is always more expensive than the same bottle at a local supermarket).
Even if the price charged for towing was not standard for that area, you would be obligated to pay the agreed-upon price if it prevented him from taking another towing job at the rate to which you had agreed. (4)
[One would also have to examine the parameters of “a price agreed upon under pressure.” Although we have shown that the halachah exempts one from paying an exorbitant fee that was agreed upon only due to the pressing needs of the situation, not all situations of “pressure” are halachically the same. It is quite common that people buy and sell items due to a specific need, yet we declare the transaction binding despite the aspect of duress. The prohibition of onaah (overcharging) usually applies when there was no disclosure at the time of the transaction. If there was disclosure and agreement that the price would be paid, the fact that it was agreed upon only due to necessity would not always relieve the payer of his halachic obligation.]
As you have been contemplating, even if the halachah were to support your attempt to renegotiate the price, it may have been unwise due to the chillul Shem Shamayim that it could (and perhaps did) cause. The tow-truck operator is probably not familiar with the Gemaras in Yevamos and Bava Kamma, and certainly not with the Tosafos on the sugya and the psak in Shulchan Aruch. All he sees is a Jew who promised to pay him and is now attempting to renege on the deal.
The Rambam (5) states explicitly that creating a chillul Hashem is an aveirah of the highest order, and it is most difficult to gain atonement for such a transgression in one’s lifetime. All Jews are ambassadors of Hashem and His Torah in this world. Whoever we are and wherever we may be, others will draw conclusions about Hashem and His Torah through our actions. This tremendous responsibility is not to be taken lightly, because people automatically assume that whatever we do represents true Torah Judaism.
Although most people do not view themselves as role models, the fact remains that the behavior of frum men and women is constantly under scrutiny. The business ethics of a Jew must be beyond reproach, whether in the office or on the road. One must view every transaction as an opportunity to display honesty and integrity in order to be mekadesh Shem Shamayim.
- Yevamos 106a.
- See Tosofos ibid. d”h ein lo ela secharo; see also Gemara Bava Kamma 116b with Tosofos d”h L’havi.
- See Yoreh Deah 336:3.
- See end of Tosafos Bava
- Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah 1:4
Reprinted with permission from Artscroll Publications
by Rabbi Yosef Viener