by Jacob Solomon
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| A man or woman who commits treachery towards G-d shall confess their sin which they committed and add a fifth of its value to it… and give it to the person against whom he transgressed…(4:6-7).
The Talmud (Bava Kama 109-110) interprets this passage, together with its counterpart in Leviticus (5:20-6) as referring to theft. Specifically, (combining the two sources together) the type of theft described involves unlawfully withholding and denying through perjury, property belonging to someone else - such as a deposit of money, or an article. The Torah states that when a person decides to put the matter right, he should confess his sin to G-d (4:7), and return the stolen article (Lev. 5:23), adding a fifth of its value to it (4:7). This passage teaches us that financial treachery is like treachery against G-d Himself, for the thief takes something for his own use that G-d granted to someone else. To this end, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (in Darash Moshe) expands the above passage, saying that it is absolutely forbidden to take the property of another person even where he can reason that the owner is so wealthy that he will never miss the stolen item at all. All property ultimately belongs to the Almighty and one may not take anything He did not give us rights to. This is regardless of whether the theft is great or small, or whether we can find moral justification for taking the item.
These passages present the following difficulty. That the Torah treats stealing as a heinous offence is clear: the prohibition of theft forms one of the Ten Commandments. On the other hand the Torah does grant the thief a way to do put matters right that does not apply to any other transgression. It does this by demanding the return of the article, a fine, and a korban asham (guilt offering) This applies even where the person initially denied the theft by means of a false oath. What is special about theft - in that a person may put the matter right by returning the object, paying a fine, and bringing a sacrifice even though the theft and the false oath appear to have been committed on purpose? In virtually all other transgressions, a korban is brought only after sinning inadvertently. Intentional breaking of negative mitzvot is not put right by korbannot, but by genuine teshuva.
In answering the question, consider two incidents seen by the writer:
1. Due to shortage of shelving, a certain gentleman arranged his books so that each shelf had two horizontal rows of books, one inside the other. In putting up new shelves, he had to completely re-arrange his library. That meant that the inner rows of books saw the light of day for the first time in many years. He was shocked to find that some thirty books were not his own at all, but 'borrowed and not returned'. Indeed one of the books belonged to a set virtually unobtainable today. He went on to say that had the owners come forward and asked for their books back, in most cases he would have said, with all sincerity that he had never borrowed the items in the first place.
2. A person bought a pocket radio-tape recorder and he found within a few days that the machine was defective. He returned it to the shop and they said that it would be repaired at their own expense within fifteen days. When he came to collect it, they informed him that he must wait another two weeks, as the repair contractor was unwell. Five weeks and two visits later the item was finally ready for collection. He was shocked to see that there was a repair price tag on it for 40 shekels. The shop assistant told him that it was clear to the repairer that the article had been dropped before it had been brought in. The buyer was furious. Wasn't it enough that he had to wait so long to get his machine back, without being treated as though he had broken the article in the first place! He declared that he would not pay a single grush, and he demanded that they give him back the machine. The seller thought for a moment and said, "OK - we'll pay your repair bill, but the theft is on your conscience". Later on the person calmed down and thought to himself: "Maybe the shop is right. Being a pocket machine, maybe I did once drop it. It would have been a couple of months ago, so I don't really remember". And being a Yirei Shamayim, he returned to the shop and paid the 40 shekels. Despite his anger at the number of journeys he had to make, and the time taken to repair the machine (which after all was the fault of a third party), he was able to admit that it was least possible that he may have indeed caused the damage himself.
These two incidents show the diverse nature of theft. In the bookshelf story, the person sincerely believed that he had not borrowed the books. Applying the circumstances of the pesukim under study, his initial bad management and subsequent forgetfulness may well have caused him to 'swear falsely'. In the radio-tape incident, the person was so exasperated with the shop personnel that he would have 'sworn falsely' in anger, believing that his repeated journeys took more than 40 shekels worth of his time. So in both circumstances - and in numerous similar cases - the Torah recognizes the enormous 'grey area' in theft, giving the person a chance to see the issue from afar and put it right in the manner described.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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