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The Laws of Stealing

The Laws of Stealing


• It is forbidden to steal, whether from a child or a grownup, Jew or Gentile, and even from an individual who has caused you pain. The prohibition applies even to an object which is of minimal value, less than a perutah.1 However, it is technically permitted to take an item whose worth is so minimal that the owner will not care if it is taken, such as a sliver of wood from a bundle of wood for use as a toothpick. Ideally, however, this too should be avoided unless one has the express permission of the owner.2.

• Stealing is forbidden even if one has no intention of keeping the item. For example, it is forbidden to temporarily take an item simply to cause the owner aggravation or to teach him a lesson not to keep his money or objects in unsafe places. Likewise one is not permitted to steal in order to play a joke on a friend.3

• If a person's coat or boots were mistakenly exchanged at a wedding hall or in another public area, it is forbidden for the victim of the exchange to use the exchanged garment or keep it as his own. If the owner comes to claim it, he must return it, even if his own is lost.4 To circumvent this issue, many public places, such as synagogues, hang a sign stating that by hanging their coats in this place, the owners agree that if their garment is mistakenly exchanged, the other person has permission to wear it.

• It is forbidden to purchase stolen goods. If a seller is known to be a thief who sells stolen goods, it is forbidden to purchase anything from him. Likewise, it is forbidden to have any pleasure from stolen goods, even without purchasing it, such as riding on a stolen horse or entering a stolen home to avoid the heat. This applies even if the owners have given up hope of ever recovering their stolen item.5

• It is forbidden to steal exams before they are given in order to review them and get good grades. This is not only considered "geneivat da'at" (deception) but is considered actual stealing, for eventually he will be hired on account of his "good" grades, and had the employer known that these grades were not actual grades he would not have been hired. Thus he is stealing money from a future employer.6

• Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz writes, "One should repeat Torah ideas in the name of the person who originally said it, for the theft of such ideas is worse than the theft of money. The soul of a Jew and the Torah are one, thus stealing Torah ideas is tantamount to wounding the soul. How great is the sin of one who repeats an explanation of a verse, or something else he has heard and does not mention the name of the person who originally said it or wrote it."7

• An employee may not use the property of his employer or the employer's firm for his own personal purposes. He must therefore refrain from using the company's telephone, copier, other machinery, car, etc., unless he knows for certain that the employer permits such usage. The fact that many other employees in the company violate this rule is not relevant; this does not constitute a "prevailing custom" which an employer is obligated to respect.

If an employee is not certain whether the employer permits the usage of a particular item of company property, he should ask himself the following question: If the employer were in his presence at the time, would he refrain from using the object or would he continue to do so unimpeded? If he would refrain from such usage or feel uncomfortable about it in the employer's presence, this usage should be avoided even when the employer is not present.

• A worker may not take off time from work for prayer without permission. Prayer should be done on his own time. If an express agreement was reached with the employer about this issue, or if a prevailing custom exists in that field of work in that location to the effect that the employees pray on company time, it is permitted.8

• In the same vein, it is forbidden for a person who has two jobs to do work for one job while at the other job. For instance, a teacher who has an office job in the afternoon for a different employer may not have a discussion with a student's parent while at the second job.

• It is also not permitted to take extended coffee breaks and the like, more than the expected norms.

An ancient copper coin of negligible value.
Shulchan Aruch Harav, Laws of Theft 1.
Ibid, 3.
Ibid 30; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 182:12.
Ibid 9; Kitzur 182:8-9.
Igrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 2:30
Shelah HaKodosh 183.
All the above is from Cases in Monetary Halacha by Rabbi Tzvi Spitz, Artscroll
Rabbi Eliezer Wenger taught at the Beth Rivkah High School in Montreal, Canada, was rabbi at Congregation Oneg Shabbos in Montreal and the author of over a dozen works on Jewish law.
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Anonymous ny September 19, 2016

Coat I was unaware of the coat exchange. I know someone who lost (taken from shul) a good coat and was left a bad coat (at shul), and now you say that he shouldn't even use the bad coat (to go home in the snow). Seems a bit stark, surely the coat exchanger would want him to go home in warmth. Otherwise next year he might not have another coat to steal. Truly it was probably taken by mistake, but I can't really know that. (That's why I bring my coat into Shul with me -- when they stole the Rabbi's coat, I figured nothing is safe.) Reply

Philip Florida December 27, 2015

What is the teaching regarding the use of stolen property? I.E. a shopping cart taken from a grocery store then used for personal use such as transporting clothing from a car to a home, etc. Reply

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