Q. When my real estate agent referred me to a suitable apartment, I asked her to go ahead and rent it for me. But she told me it wasn’t available! I went myself to make sure and ended up renting it without her knowledge. I don’t want to stiff her if she’s due a partial fee, but I’m afraid that if I let her know she’ll try to overcharge me.
A. Your desire to settle this matter is praiseworthy. Most people have a natural desire to do the right thing, but this desire is easily challenged when they think they may suffer for acting in an ethical way.
Your question finds a detailed answer in a famous work of Jewish law. The renowned authority Rabbi Avraham Danzig writes: “If your fellow man has some kind of monetary claim against you, you should inform him, even if he doesn’t know about it at all. At the very least you should explain the matter to a qualified rabbi in a complete and honest way. Otherwise you are merely trying to fool God. You need to consult with another person. The basic principle is that in any monetary matter you shouldn’t rely on your own point of view, because your lower nature will suggest many leniencies. You must ask a qualified authority for guidance according to the Torah, so that no money will remain in your hands improperly.”
Rabbi Danzig begins by stating that you should inform the other party. This is obviously the ideal situation, for then her point of view will be taken into account.
However, there are cases where you may be reluctant to inform the other party. Perhaps you are afraid of unjustified loss or embarrassment. In that case, “you should explain the matter to a qualified rabbi.” In your particular case, you need to find one who is well versed in the custom in your area. In some places real estate agents are not entitled to any payment if they don’t carry through to closing; in many places they are entitled to partial payment such as a third. If you consult a rabbi, then he may be able to make contact with a qualified expert in local custom.
Just as a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, direct contact between the two sides is the best way to solve a dispute. So the ideal solution is for you to contact the agent directly and explain the situation and your desire to make a fair settlement without being exploited. This way you display and nurture trust in business relationships.
But if you have a well-founded worry that she will take advantage of your good will, then you should turn to Plan B and consult with someone who is fully qualified to apply Torah law in the light of local custom.
Rabbi Danzig helps us with a profound insight: even we can’t completely escape our natural subjectivity, we can overcome it by consulting with impartial third parties.
SOURCES: Chayei Adam chapter 144:6, Mishna Berura 606:1.