The class was sitting around the table during lunch.
“Jacob, you borrowed $1,000 a year ago and haven’t paid up yet,” Ariel said loudly.
“Oh, sure!” replied Jacob, in an audible voice. Many ears perked up.
The following morning, Ariel approached Jacob. “Now that you admit that you owe,” he said, “I would appreciate payment!”
“You think that I was serious yesterday?” replied Jacob. “I don’t owe you a penny!”
“But you admitted outright that you owe me,” responded Ariel. “The whole class heard you, loud and clear!”
“I was just joking,” said Jacob. “I thought that you were pulling my leg, so I responded in kind.”
“I was 100 percent serious,” Ariel declared. “This loan has been on my mind all year.”
“Well, I wasn’t serious,” Jacob retorted.
“I doubt that such a claim is valid,” argued Ariel. “A monetary admission suffices to obligate you, as if there were testimony against you!”
“I did not intend to admit sincerely,” insisted Jacob. “I don’t owe anything and will not pay! You’re bothering me for nothing!”
“In that case, I’ll have to sue you,” Ariel declared. “Now I have evidence! A lot of people heard your admission.”
Shortly afterward, Jacob received a summons to appear at Rabbi Dayan’s beis din.
“I lent Jacob $1,000 a year ago and he hasn’t paid,” claimed Ariel.
“What do you say to the claim?” Rabbi Dayan asked Jacob.
“I don’t owe him a penny,” replied Jacob. “I never borrowed from him.”
“Do you have any evidence of the loan?” Rabbi Dayan asked Ariel.
“Two weeks ago, Jacob admitted the debt before the entire class,” replied Ariel. “I brought two witnesses who can testify to the admission.”
Rabbi Dayan heard the witnesses, who testified that Jacob acknowledged his debt to Ariel.
“What do you have to say in light of your admission?” asked Rabbi Dayan.
“I was just joking,” replied Jacob. “I didn’t take him seriously and responded in kind.”
“Jacob’s claim is acceptable in this case,” ruled Rabbi Dayan. “This admission is insufficient to obligate him.”
“Could you please explain?” asked Ariel.
“The Gemara (Sanhedrin 29b) addresses this case,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “Someone said to another, ‘You owe me money,’ and he replied, ‘Yes,’ but the following day refused to pay and claimed that he was joking (“meshateh ani”). He is exempt, even if witnesses overheard the admission, but is required to swear that he does not owe and that he admitted in jest” (C.M. 81:1; Sma 81:2).
“Why is that?” asked Ariel. “Isn’t a person’s admission like the testimony of witnesses?”
“It is, indeed,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “However, that applies when the admission is sincere. But a person can claim that he admitted in jest in certain situations. Beis din will not raise the possibility of an insincere admission, though, unless the person claims so on his own” (C.M. 81:3).
“When can such a claim be made?” asked Jacob.
“According to the Shulchan Aruch and most authorities, a person can claim that he admitted insincerely only if the other party initiated the demand, but not if he admitted of his own initiative,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “The rationale is that the one who admitted can claim: ‘Just as you demanded in jest, I responded in jest.’ The Shach, however, maintains that a person can claim meshateh ani even if he initiated the admission” (C.M. 81:5; Shach 81:12).
“Are there other limitations on this claim?” asked Ariel.
“If the admission was made in court, before witnesses who were appointed to hear the admission, during severe illness, or when said in a context and tone of complete and sincere admission, a claim of insincerity and joking is not accepted,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “Similarly, if the other party holds money of the person, we do not accept a claim that the admission was insincere” (C.M. 81:2, 6, 8; Pischei Choshen, Shtaros 11:50–62).
This article is intended for learning purposes and not to be relied upon halacha l’maaseh. There are also issues of dina d’malchusa to consider in actual cases.
Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, which is headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, shlita, a noted dayan. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, please call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e‑mail email@example.com. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e‑mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.