I signed my daughter up for 16 dance classes. The classes are given to a small group of girls, and provide a lot of individualized attention. The total cost of the classes was $560. I worked out a payment schedule with the instructor to pay in two installments, with half the money up front and the remainder postdated for two months from the first class.
My daughter really enjoyed the classes, and was eager to attend each week. But after the fourth class, she fell and injured her foot. Her foot is now in a cast, and obviously she cannot participate in any more dance classes.
I asked the instructor for a refund, but she refused, saying the payment was for the entire series, whether or not my daughter attended. I intend to call my bank and cancel the postdated check, even though the instructor has told me that this is not within my rights either.
Who is in the right, according to the Torah?
In order to answer your question, there are two aspects of Jewish law that we need to consider. The first is what you are actually obligated to do, and the second is what is called lifnim mishurat hadin, being meritorious and going beyond the letter of the law. We’ll discuss obligations first.
According to Jewish law, if you hire a private teacher for your child, and then the child unexpectedly becomes There are two aspects of Jewish law that we need to considersick or dies, you are not obligated to pay the teacher or worker for any uncompleted work.
At first glance it would seem that the same law would apply here, and you would not be obligated to pay the dance instructor for any lessons that your daughter does not take. However, since you prepaid for all the dance lessons, we are dealing with a very different scenario.
In this case, I would point to another Jewish law. If you hire and prepay a shipowner to transport barrels of wine to a specific location, and then the ship—together with the wine—sinks in middle of the ocean, the shipowner is not required to return the money he was paid. Since you gave him the money beforehand, despite the fact that you weren’t obligated to pay until all the work was done, you intended that the worker acquire the money immediately. If the worker is not able to complete the original job due to unforeseen circumstances, you can give him another job, but he doesn’t have to refund the money.
Based on the above law, since you already prepaid for the dance lessons, the instructor is not obligated to return the money for the unattended lessons, despite the fact that your daughter injured her foot.
However, you mentioned that you paid with two checks, and one of them was postdated. The question now becomes: what is the status of the second postdated check? Can you cancel it or not?
If the class does not have limited space or require a minimum amount of students, and therefore the instructor does not incur a loss for the dance classes that your daughter doesn’t attend, you could cancel the second check. The only reason the instructor is not obligated to return the first check is because giving money in advance shows that you want the person to acquire that money immediately; however, the very fact that this second check is postdated shows that it was not part of the plan that the instructor acquire the remaining money right away.
So, you’re both partially right. She can keep the prepaid money, and you can cancel the postdated check. But as I mentioned earlier, You’re both partially rightthere is another level of awareness, that of going beyond the letter of the law. We find a fascinating incident in the Talmud that illustrates this idea:
Some porters [negligently] broke a barrel of wine belonging to Rabbah, the son of Rabbi Huna. He then seized their garments [as escrow to pay for the barrels]; so they went and complained to Rav. “Return them their garments,” he ordered. “Is that the law!?” [Rabbah] inquired. “Indeed,” he rejoined, “‘That you should walk in the way of good men.’” Their garments having been returned, they observed, “We are poor men, have worked all day, and are in need; are we to get nothing?” “Go and pay them,” he ordered. “Is that the law!?” he asked. “Indeed,” was his reply: “‘and keep the path of the righteous.’”
Although the teacher is not obligated to refund your prepaid money, if she did not sustain any real loss by not having your daughter in the class, refunding your money for the unattended classes would be considered the meritorious thing to do.