Question

Sruly entered the hat shop and chose a hat. He went over
to the counter to have it shaped to his liking and to pay. While he was
waiting, he noticed that a young man was having his shaped to (his)
perfection. He asked for no less than ten alterations to the shape of the
hat. “Finally he is going to pay and go!” thought Sruly to himself.
But it was not to be. This young man then asked, “I’d also like to
look elsewhere. Can you put this hat on the side for me?” The stunned
shopkeeper replied, “How much work do you expect me to do for free?”
Sruly has a strong feeling that something is wrong with this young man’s
behavior. Is he obligated to buy the hat? What exactly has he done wrong?


Answer

According to the halochoh (Jewish law), only a
valid kinyan (act of acquisition) obligates the buyer to go ahead
with a purchase. On the face of it, no such transaction took place in our
case (we are assuming that any shaping of the hat is reversible). However,
there are occasions on which our Sages use very strong words to condemn
those who back out of a transaction, even though completion of the deal is
not enforceable according to the halochoh. If a buyer has fully or
partially paid for goods but not made a kinyan and then retracts
his agreement to the sale, he is entitled to have his money refunded.
Nevertheless, our Sages condemn his behavior, stating that his behavior is
unfitting for a Jew and that he is to be cursed in Beis Din (Shulchan
Oruch
, Choshen Mishpot 204:1). The text of the curse (Ibid, 4)
reads: He who punished those who were destroyed by the flood, those who
built the Tower Of Babel, the inhabitants of Sodom and who drowned the
Egyptians in the sea, will punish one who does not keep his word. This
curse is also given to a seller who backs out under these circumstances.

Again, it would seem that this law does not apply to
our case, since no money had changed hands. However, our Sages also
strongly criticize one who has only given his verbal agreement to a sale
and then retracts. The Shulchan Oruch (Ibid, 7) writes that even if
none of the basic elements of a sale have yet been executed (exchange of
money, act of acquisition, etc.), if the parties have discussed the
details of the transaction and reached a verbal agreement to proceed, it
is still wrong to back out. If either party does retract, they will not
receive a curse. Nevertheless, our Sages are unhappy with their behavior
and give them the title of “untrustworthy people” (m’chusoray
amonoh). Sometimes actions can take the place of a specific verbal
agreement. It can be argued that if a person tries on a hat and then asks
for it to be shaped to his liking, he is in fact declaring that he wishes
to purchase the hat. The shop owner and his assistants are prepared to
show many hats to a potential customer, but finishing off to one’s
personal taste is reserved for buyers! Accordingly, this title could be
conferred on the young man in our case. Did he really expect all this
personal service just in order to try on the hat?