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Halakhically, is a business transaction conducted over Chat/IM/SMS a "written" or "oral" contract?

Chat is oral-style communication in a textual medium. Does the fact that it's actually written over-ride the fact that most people use it in the same (or even more) informal way that they use voice?

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Shmuel, welcome to Judaism.SE, and thanks very much for the fascinating question! Please consider registering your account, which will help the site keep track of your contributions no matter where you log in from. –  Isaac Moses Sep 13 '11 at 0:44
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Doesn't a written contract work because of the witnesses that signed it? If so, the fact that there are no witnesses to the chat/etc. should make it worth less than a written contract. –  Menachem Sep 13 '11 at 3:00
    
Question: Can you give a get over SMS? (totatlly unrelated to anything Jewish but this article was interesting: newsfeed.time.com/2011/04/12/… ) –  avi Sep 13 '11 at 6:15
    
Oral statements are stronger than written ones –  avi Sep 13 '11 at 6:16
    
I tried to send an sms to Rav Aviner, since he deals with this sort of issue on a regular basis, but my sms was denied. Not sure why. Maybe the number I found was wrong. –  avi Sep 13 '11 at 6:21
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

I would assume it depends on what's considered a normal form of transaction.

If any action is recognized by society as a form of transaction, halacha recognizes it -- this is known as kinyan situmta.

But Rambam and Shulchan Aruch rule that if you use "word alone" to commit to buying or selling (without any language of oaths), "though you have made no mark nor taken any collateral", it is "very appropriate that you keep your words; and if you don't do so, the Sages are upset with you."

So if IMing or emailing someone "I'll buy a dozen of your widgets" isn't recognized as a transaction, I don't think halacha would find it binding; but the concept of a strong religious value to honor your word would still hold.

Does that answer your question?

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I agree that one shouldn't back out either way. However, I was wondering if the transaction was a "done deal" or was otherwise enforceable from a Halakhic standpoint. I don't think general American society recognizes Chat\SMS as a form of transaction yet, although the use of SMS for donations seems to lead in that direction. In other countries, especially in Asia and Africa, people are accustomed to paying for things with their phones or with calling-card minutes, and so it might be a Halakhic valid transaction in those areas. –  Shmuel Sep 16 '11 at 6:11
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In Halachah, a contract is only recognized because it is enforceable by verifying its witnesses. A document, be it on paper or electronic, that cannot be verified by its witnesses, cannot be upheld.

This does bring to mind another question, however, which is whether or not one is bound by text/chat/SMS vows.

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I think the question might be inadvertently mixing the halachically distinct concepts of contract and transaction. You're answering only with respect to the former. –  Isaac Moses Sep 13 '11 at 14:25
    
You're right, I wasn't very clear. I meant "contract," although the issue of "transaction" (or "kinyan") could also apply. Witnesses are possible in a group chat\IM\sms, which are becoming increasingly popular. Also, I'm taking it for granted that a email containing a formal legal contract is valid, even if it only exists in digital form. –  Shmuel Sep 16 '11 at 6:03
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It is neither and has aspects of both.

The words have not come out of your lips. And we know that in Judaism, things said by your lips have a special power. They are really more like thoughts that other people are able to access.

If printed, the words become written, but they are not printed, and elsewhere on this site it has been said that text on a monitor do not really exist.

In situations of doubt, take the more stringent position. :)

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"In situations of doubt, take the more stringent position." Um, no. There are many doubtful (ספק) situations where one can, and should, rule leniently. Also, this isn't a simple בין אדם למקום where there's no harm done if you rule stringently. This is a דיני ממנות case, and there are theoretically millions of dollars on the line. "And we know that in Judaism, things said by your lips have a special power." Granted, there is spiritual benefit to actually saying stuff, and even halakhic ramifications with prayer. But writing is stronger than speech with regards to business contracts. –  Shmuel Sep 16 '11 at 6:16
    
"If printed, the words become written, but they are not printed, and elsewhere on this site it has been said that text on a monitor do not really exist." Again, this doesn't really apply. Emails are accepted in secular court as valid legal statements. –  Shmuel Sep 16 '11 at 6:19
    
But you are asking about halacha, not secular court. And I have been told by many rabbis, and read in 2 books that if you tell someone a situation in your contract, but it is not written in, you still have to follow what you told them. But if you write it, and nobody signs it, then you don't have to follow what is written, because it might be a forgery. So halacha sees the spoken word as stronger than the written. –  avi Sep 16 '11 at 12:18
    
Avi, there is a difference between "having to follow" what is spoken and actually being able to enforce it. A Beith Din would not accept a verbal agreement between parties that supposedly superseded a written and signed contract with signed witnesses to that contract, where one party disputes that the verbal agreement ever existed. This is basic. The question, I think, is really about whether or not electronic communication is acceptable as a contract (ie., whether it is enforceable). If everybody involved agrees and follows through with their agreement, it's a moot point. –  Seth J Sep 16 '11 at 15:12
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