Q. I made an unwritten agreement with someone to make him something in return for payment. When I told him I’d take back the equipment if he didn’t pay me, he called my bluff and stopped using it! Now he claims that since he’s not using my work, he doesn’t owe me any money.
Well, I don’t agree with him at all, and I found a way to steal the money from him a little at a time without his knowledge. But I wonder if this is really ethical. Can I keep on collecting my debt this way? Should I return what I’ve already taken? PG, Brooklyn
A. Your situation certainly proves the old adage, “An oral agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” When a contract is unwritten, disagreements are much more likely to arise and much more difficult to resolve.
Another problem is that your agreement seems to be pretty ambiguous. If an agreement is unclear, then one side is likely to feel that he has been cheated; and even an ethical person may be tempted to extreme measures when he thinks others are taking advantage of him. Avoid this temptation by making sure that both sides understand their obligations in any contract.
While your frustration is understandable, stealing is not the ideal way to solve contract disputes. Try to convince your client to compromise or go to arbitration, but if he declines or if you lose the arbitration judgment, you should return the money.
Since informing your colleague that you stole money from him is likely to be embarrassing for both of you, you can return the money the same way you acquired it – without his knowledge. Jewish law recognizes that doing the right thing is sometimes easier when it’s done in secret, and permits hiding payment in this way to encourage honesty and to maintain harmonious relations.
Sources: Ahavat Chesed I 10:13, note citing Sefat Tamim; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 4:1,70:1, 355:1.