Yisrael, Shlomi, and some other teenage friends swam regularly at the local pool, which had special men’s hours. They all brought locks with them to secure the lockers, except Shlomi. He would simply put his clothes in the locker, with the wallet in his pants pocket, and shut the locker door.
“Really, Shlomi, you shouldn’t leave your wallet unlocked,” Yisrael reproached him. “You know there have been thefts before.”
“I’m not worried about that,” replied Shlomi. “It’s not likely. Anyway, if someone really wants to steal, he’ll do so whether there’s a lock or not.”
Finally, Yisrael decided he was going to teach Shlomi a lesson. He called over two other friends. “When swim is over, keep Shlomi occupied for a few minutes,” he said to them. “I’m going to take his wallet; I’ll return it to him tomorrow in school. Hopefully, he’ll learn his lesson.”
When swim was over, Yisrael headed promptly for the locker room and removed the wallet from Shlomi’s pants. By the time Shlomi returned to the locker room, Yisrael was already heading home.
When Shlomi checked his pocket and saw his wallet missing, he turned white. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “Someone actually stole my wallet.”
“We’ve been telling you for weeks that this could happen,” said the other friends.
When Yisrael got home, he put the wallet securely in his desk. “I wonder what Shlomi will say tomorrow,” he thought.
During the night Shlomi was awakened by the buzz of the fire alarm. He woke abruptly and smelled smoke. He cried out “fire!” to awaken the rest of his family and ran outside.
The fire department arrived within ten minutes, but Yisrael’s desk, with Shlomi’s wallet inside, was burned.
The following morning Yisrael met Shlomi in school. “Guess what happened yesterday at the pool,” Shlomi said. “Someone stole my wallet!”
“And we had a fire in our house last night,” said Yisrael. “Actually, I took your wallet yesterday, and it got burned.”
“So you’re the thief,” said Shlomi.
“I didn’t ‘steal’ it,” protested Yisrael. “I did it for your good, to teach you a lesson.”
“Nonetheless, you had no right to touch my wallet,” argued Shlomi. “You’re responsible for it.”
“I put away the wallet safely,” said Yisrael. “The fire was an oness, an uncontrolled circumstance.”
“What’s the difference,” argued Shlomi. “You’re a thief and responsible even for oness!”
“I don’t think I qualify as a ‘thief,’ though,” insisted Yisrael. “I never took it for myself.”
“To me it’s all the same; you had no right to touch my wallet,” responded Shlomi. “Ask Rabbbi Dayan, but I have no doubt!”
The two of them went to Rabbi Dayan. “Was I allowed to take Shlomi’s wallet in order to teach him to be more careful?” asked Yisrael. “Am I liable for it?”
“You were wrong to take the wallet; it’s a form of stealing,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “However, since the wallet was destroyed through uncontrollable circumstances, you are not liable to pay for it.”
“Really?!” exclaimed Shlomi. “Can you please explain?”
“The Gemara [B.M. 61b] extends the prohibition, ‘Do not steal,’ also to one who steals l’meikat,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “Rashi explains this to mean one who wants to cause his fellow temporary anguish. However, a number of Rishonim explain this to mean in order to teach the owner a lesson, such as if he is not careful with his property. Thus, you were not allowed to take Shlomi’s wallet even though you are trying to teach him a lesson.” (Rabbeinu Yona, Shaarei Teshuvah 3:85; She’eltos, Noach #4)
“Is this really the same as actual stealing?” asked Yisrael.
“The extent of this prohibition is the subject of a dispute among the authorities,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “Many understand that stealing to teach a lesson is prohibited from the Torah, whereas some understand the Rambam’s position that the prohibition is rabbinic, ‘so that one should not accustom himself to stealing.'” (Hil. Geneivah 1:2)
“Then why is Yisrael not liable for the wallet?” asked Shlomi.
“Ketzos [348:1] questions whether there is full liability of a thief in such a case,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “He brings proof that one is not liable for oness since he did not take it with intention of keeping the wallet or of benefitting from it. Although some argue, Aruch Hashulchan [348:4] also rules this way, but he does maintain that you would be liable if the wallet was lost or stolen from you.” See, however Chazon Ish B.K. 20:5 nir’eh.)
“But every thief could exempt himself in this manner,” objected Yisrael. “He’ll say he did it with good intentions.”
“You are only exempt in such a case if you announced your intention ahead of time to two witnesses before taking the item,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “Otherwise, you are presumed to have stolen for your benefit and not believed.” (Yad Hamelech, Geneivah 1:2)
About the Author: Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, a noted dayan. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e-mail email@example.com.
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