Sign And Share

Question

Menachem (on his passport he is called
Jean-Claude) arrived from France and bought himself a beautiful apartment
with a stunning view. When he moved in, Menachem went down to the storeroom,
which was included in the sale, in order to see how he could store the many
items he had brought with him. To his astonishment, he discovered that more
than half the storeroom was occupied by another person’s belongings. He
contacted the seller who showed him that there was a clause in the contract
which allowed him to store his property in the storeroom for up to two
years. Menachem replied that since he was newly arrived from France, his
Hebrew was not that good. He could not understand all the fine details of
the sales contract and did not realize that this clause existed. He was also
not prepared to pay for a professional translation of the document into
French. The seller maintained his ground, arguing that Menachem’s signature
on the document meant that he accepted all the conditions of the contract.
Is this argument valid?


Answer

The Rashbo (Responsa 7:77, formerly accredited to
the Ramban) was asked about the status of a signature on a document,
where the signatory does not understand the language in which the document
is written. He replied that whenever a person signs a document, we assume
that he did read and understand its content. Even if the majority of people
do not understand the language in which it is written, it is possible that
the signatory does. The Rashbo goes further by stating that even if
both parties to the transaction (e.g. borrower and lender) admit that the
signatory does not understand the text of the document or if witnesses
testify that he signed without having read the document, his signature is
still fully binding. If he did not know what the document contained, why did
he sign? His behaviour leads us to the conclusion that he must have relied
on whoever drew up the document. Accordingly, by affixing his signature to
the unread document he accepts all its terms, whatever they may be. Even
when it is clear to all concerned that the signatory did not know what the
document contained, his signature obligates him to fulfil its terms. These
rulings of the Rashbo are accepted by the Shulchan Oruch (Choshen
Mishpot
45:3).

Further insight into why we consider the signature on a
document to be binding, even if all are aware that the signatory is
oblivious of its contents, is provided by another responsum of the Rashbo
(1:629). A simple Jew
wished to divorce his wife. The Beis Din
who handled the divorce informed the husband that he was obligated to pay
his wife the sum he had promised her in her kesubah (a marriage
document). The husband replied that he had no idea of his kesubah
obligations, since he could not understand what was being read out during
the marriage ceremony! He therefore felt he was not obligated to pay. The
Rashbo
rules that he does have to pay the kesubah, for two reasons.
Firstly, we can assume that even if he did not understand what was going on
during the reading of the kesubah, he asked the witnesses to explain
the content of the document to him before signing. Secondly, if we accept
the argument that a signature on a document can be invalidated through
claiming a lack of understanding of its contents, we will soon be confronted
by a major problem. Any document signed by a person who is ignorant of its
contents is potentially worthless. He can simply overturn any previously
accepted obligations by arguing that he did not know what he were signing!
For this reason alone, we are forced to say that your signature always
obligates you to fulfil every condition mentioned in the document. Menachem
will just have to share his storeroom with the seller.