Can a lender claim that a payment received was for a different debt?
Rabbi Shmuel Wise
We learned about this on 42a. The gemara there relates how a lender demanded a 100 zuz loan back from the borrower. The lender backed up his claim by producing the loan document, but the borrower claimed he had already paid this loan back. Indeed, as the gemara later clarifies, there were witnesses who saw the borrower make payment to this lender, but the lender claimed that that payment was for some other debt this borrower owed him. The borrower denied the existence of any other debt, insisting that that he had paid the loan in question. What is the law in such a case? The gemara brings a dispute about the halachah in such a case with R’ Nachman asserting that the borrower wins and R’ Pappa arguing in favor of the lender.
R’ Nachman’s opinion seems simple to understand. Given that we have testimony that the borrower made a payment in the amount of the loan and that there is no evidence of any other debt for that amount, there appears to be overwhelming evidence in favor of the borrower. So how are to understand the view of R’ Pappa?
In order to approach this question, let’s step back and consider a typical case where a lender collects with the loan document in hand. If the borrower tries to claim he already paid (without testimony to that effect), the lender undoubtedly wins the case and collects. This is because any claim from the borrower that he paid is refuted by a simple question: If the borrower already paid, why is the lender still in possession of the document? Surely the sensible thing to do upon payment is demand that document back to avoid being collected from twice.
Now in our case the above argument is of course countered by the fact that we have testimony that the borrower did make a payment. And that is precisely what R’ Nachman argues: We are no longer impressed by the lender’s possession of the document because of the strong evidence that the loan was in fact paid. R’ Pappa, though, argues that the lender still wins because he has a different understanding of the aforementioned rationale. In R’ Pappa’s view, the lender’s possession of the loan document is tantamount to full testimony that the borrower still has not paid. For it is well established that the signatures in legal document are the equivalent of witnesses testifying about the existence of the debt in question. Rav Pappa just takes this concept one step further and says that the signatures in the document continue to testify on behalf of the creditor, as long as he continues to be in possession of the document. Consequently, the only way the borrower can win is if he can produce witnesses that testify that he paid back this loan. Otherwise, he has not adequately responded to the lender’s “witnesses” (i.e. the document) who continue to testify that the loan was not paid yet.
This is another instance that reminds us to take precaution by ensuring that everything in a transaction be duly recorded and/or to conduct transactions only with people we can fully trust.