It's Not Quite That Simple

For the week ending 14 June 2014 / 16 Sivan 5774

Little Orphan Annie

by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Greenblatt
Library Library Library

Little orphan Annie lives on the street with her dog, Sandy and her 19 orphaned friends. Rabbi Cohen is a tenderhearted and very holy man. He runs an organization called H.O.M.E. (Housing for Orphans Made Easy). The plight of Annie and her rosy-cheeked friends has long weighed heavily on his soul. Mr. Warbucks owns a large building - The Haven - on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a building which just happens to be large enough to accommodate little orphan Annie and her 19 orphan friends. And the previous tenant has just moved out.

When the good people at H.O.M.E. tell Rabbi Cohen about The Haven, he has an idea. He schedules a meeting with Mr. Warbucks and negotiates a rental price for the whole building — $120,000 a year. Mr. Warbucks, however, is a shrewd businessman and cannot resist sweetening the deal for himself. He knows that Rabbi Cohen is Jewish (perhaps the yarmulke gave it away?) and he also knows that the Jewish calendar differs from the regular Gregorian calendar. Crucially, the Jewish year usually has 11 fewer days. So Mr. Warbucks, being the oh-so-charming profiteer that he is, tells Rabbi Cohen that the 10-year rental agreement will be for $120,000 per Jewish year, beginning on the 1st of Tishrei in two weeks’ time, a seemingly innocent move which will net Mr. Warbucks an extra few hundred bucks, as the $120,000 now pays for fewer days.

Rabbi Cohen, not having much experience in matters financial and being slightly blinded by his excitement at having found a suitable place for his favorite band of vagrant but melodious orphans, agrees. He contacts some of his wealthy philanthropic donors and the next day Rabbi Cohen and a smug Mr. Warbucks sign the rental contract and the deal is done. The building is renovated and a few weeks later our merry ensemble of overjoyed children moves into their new home, complete with a bespoke kennel for Sandy the golden retriever.

Twelve Jewish months (354 days) later, Mr. Warbucks, still feeling rather pleased with himself about his ruse, finds out that his “cunning” plan may not have been so cunning after all. When he goes to Rabbi Cohen to collect for the next year’s rent, Rabbi Cohen looks bemused. “The Jewish year isn’t over for another month!” he says. “What do you mean?” booms Mr. Warbucks, “The Jewish year is shorter than the regular year!” “Actually,” says Rabbi Cohen, “this year is a leap year, and a Jewish leap year has 13 months.” “What!” cries Mr. Warbucks, “That’s ridiculous! I obviously intended to make the rent $10,000 for each of the 12 Jewish months - how was I to know about this leap year business? Why should you get an extra month for free?” So who is right? Does Mr. Warbucks deserve an extra $10,000 for the extra month, or does $120,000 per Jewish year mean $120,000 for any year, be it the 12- or 13-month variety?

There is a mishna in Tractate Bava Kama which seems to address our case directly:

If someone rents out a house to his fellow for a year, and the year becomes leap year, the (extra month of) leap year is to the renter’s benefit. (102b)

Seemingly then, Mr Warbucks is out of luck - a year is a year is a year. Rabbi Cohen and the orphans can start celebrating a free month’s lodgings.

But, as with everything in Judaism, it’s not quite that simple. Look a little more closely at the phrasing of the mishna: “If ... the year becomes a leap year.” How does a year “become” a leap year? Surely it is or it isn’t? The reference here is to the practice of fixing the calendar months on the basis of witnesses who had seen the new moon, which was the common practice at the time of the mishna. Every few years, the Sanhedrin would declare an extra month to the year, a leap year, in order to keep the solar and lunar calendars in synch, with Passover celebrated in the spring. This decision was not taken until late in the year, so when a rental contract was signed early on in the year, it really wasn’t known whether the year extended to include a 13th month. Therefore, it would make sense to say that since the parties agree to a per year rental, the intention was for this to cover any year. But in our times the Jewish calendar is fixed by astronomical calculations, it was known in advance that the year would be a leap year. Perhaps then, Mr. Warbucks can claim that he signed the contract in error?

This cannot be true, however. The authoritative Code of Jewish Law says the law in such a case follows the law of the mishna, and so Mr. Warbucks will lose out. Why is this so? One way to understand this is to take into account the fact that it is perfectly possible for anyone to check a Jewish calendar and find out which years are leap years. Therefore, Mr. Warbucks’ ignorance won’t be an excuse, and little orphan Annie and her friends will get the extra month for free. Sandy will be thrilled!

Our story has three morals. Firstly, have someone who knows what they’re talking about look over your contracts. Secondly, don’t try to pull one over on a Rabbi. And lastly, and most importantly, when you’re dealing with orphans, act charitably. The Torah repeats over and over again the commandments to act kindly towards orphans, widows and other vulnerable members of society.

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