Sweet Debts

Question

Little Shuki went to the local grocery shop, bought two bars of chocolate
– and ate them up! From where did he get the money? From Mommy’s purse –
without her permission! On another occasion, he asked the shopkeeper for a
giant ice cream cone. “Put it on the account,” he said. When the
shopkeeper presented Shuki’s father with the account at the end of the
month, he was surprised to find this – and other – mysterious entries.
“Your Shuki made these purchases,” said the shopkeeper. “He made
them without our permission and I am not paying,” said the father. “It
may be true that you did not give him permission,” replied the
shopkeeper, “but when children make purchases, I assume that they have
been sent by their parents. Please pay up.” Who is right?


Answer

What happens if a person unintentionally buys stolen goods which are
claimed by the (non-despairing) original owner, who backs his claim up
with witnesses testifying that the vendor stole the goods in their
presence? The Shulchan Oruch
(Choshen Mishpot 356:2)
rules that the original owner can retrieve his stolen property, but must
reimburse the purchaser the sum he paid to the thief. The reason why he
has to pay the purchaser in order to reclaim his own property is in order
to maintain public confidence in the market (takonas
hashuk
). The Sema
(Note 5) explains that if this purchaser has to return the stolen article
he bought (in good faith) without being reimbursed, he will be reluctant
to make future purchases for fear this might happen again. We therefore
place the burden of chasing the thief on the victim, who will have to
reclaim the sum he paid to the purchaser from this thief. The same
principle applies to a married woman’s debts. When the local butcher’s
shop sends Mr. Shain a bill for purchases his wife made, he can not argue
that the purchases were made without his authority. Even though she made
the purchases with his money and she should therefore require his consent,
at the end of the day it is for the good of the market that a husband
should honour his wife’s debts. Since wives usually make purchases on
behalf of the household, if husbands were not to honour their debts no
shopkeeper would do business with housewives! (Shach,
Choshen Mishpot 96, Note 9)

Are a minor’s business dealings valid? If he is over six years of age
and understands the concept of buying and selling, they could be. Even
though a minor’s transactions are usually invalid, our Sages enacted that
their dealings in movable goods should be considered valid (Ibid. 235:1).
However, since their concern was only that such a child who has to fend
for himself would have some means of obtaining his basic needs, it does
not apply to a minor who is cared for by his parents or a guardian. It
therefore follows that a purchase made by minor who has a parent would not
be valid. Accordingly, Shuki’s father would not have to pay for the
(invalid) purchases made by his son. Furthermore, it would seem that he
could also demand the return of the stolen money Shuki used to buy
chocolate. However, the prevailing custom (minhag) dictates that Shuki’s father should pay the bills
incurred by his naughty son. Parents commonly send their children to the
grocery to buy food and other small household items. The only reason why
the shopkeeper is prepared to supply the goods via these children is
because they trust that they have been sent by their parents, who will pay
for the purchases. In order that parents can continue sending their
children to shop, it is essential that they honour the children’s debts.
The takonas hashuk dictates
that Shuki’s father should pay up. If a child walks into an electrical
appliance store and orders a fridge, this enactment obviously does not
apply!