Light Work


The lights suddenly went out in
Yochanan’s apartment. The kids started screaming. “Do something, quick!”
pleaded Yochanan’s wife. Yochanan looked outside and saw all the
neighbouring buildings had light. But the lights in the hallway outside
his door were out, as were the lights of his neighbours across the hall.
This led Yochanan to conclude that the problem lay in the supply to his
building. He took a flashlight and examined the fuses. Sure enough, the
main fuse had blown. He ran down to the local hardware shop and bought the
necessary parts. He completed the repair, to the joy of his family—and
his neighbours. The next day, he presented the neighbours with a bill for
a professional electrical repair. The neighbours argue that he was
primarily interested in getting his own kids to be quiet. Is he entitled
to full payment?


Reuven owned the upper storey of a two-storey house;
Shimon owned the ground floor. The whole house collapsed. Reuven was
anxiously waiting for Shimon to rebuild the ground floor so that he could
rebuild his own home on top. Since he saw that Shimon was dragging his
feet, he decided that he would rebuild the ground floor and live in it
until Shimon reimburses him for his expenses. The Shulchan Oruch (Choshen
164:8) rules that Reuven is justified in taking this action.
The Nesivos (Note 11) asks why Reuven is not also entitled to the
developer’s profit and not just reimbursement of expenses. He bases his
question on a statement of the gemora in Tractate Bovo Metzia
(101a). A person saw that someone had unexpectedly failed to cultivate his
field. He decided to do the job, without consulting the owner. As the crop
began to appear, the owner walked by and expressed his satisfaction that
someone had sown a crop in his field. Generally, one who develops another
person’s property without the owner’s permission is only entitled to
receive reimbursement of his expenses. In this case, however, since the
owner was pleased with the results, he must pay him the full developer’s
fee, including profit. The Nesivos argues that Shimon is also
satisfied that Reuven did the work of rebuilding his house for him. Why
does the Shulchan Oruch then rule that he only receives
repayment of expenses? He answers that the difference lies in the
intention of the person carrying out the work. The person working another
person’s field knows that he is not entitled to the crop. He is working
someone else’s field in the hope of being paid for his work. On the other
hand, Reuven is not interested in rebuilding Shimon’s home. He needs a
place for his own family to live. Since he is unable to rebuild the upper
storey, he builds himself a home on the ground floor. As he had no
intention to perform work for Shimon, he is not entitled to receive
payment for such work.

Let us apply these principles to our case. We have to
ask Yochanan what was his prime motive in quickly repairing the
electricity himself and not calling a professional electrician. If he was
primarily interested in helping his neighbours, even though he would also
benefit from the repair, he would be entitled to a full electrician’s fee
for the work done. However, if his haste was essentially motivated by his
children’s tears and his wife’s entreaties (as seems likely), he would not
be entitled to a full electrician’s fee. He would certainly be permitted
to ask for reimbursement of expenses (parts, etc.) and also payment for
labour, but not the electrician’s profit.

Whichever type of payment he receives, he can not expect the neighbours
to pay for his share in the cost of the repair.