Mr. Spitz was going through the mail. “Typical assortment,” he grunted. “One third bills and financial documents, one third solicitations, and one third junk mail.”
He picked up a large envelope, a wedding invitation. “Finally, something significant,” he said. He looked at the return addresses. “Simcha Brander!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t know he was making a wedding!”
After reading the invitation, Mr. Spitz returned it to the envelope and put it down. “Can I soak the stamps off the envelope for my stamp collection?” asked his son, Pinchas.
“Of course,” said Mr. Spitz. “Here, take the envelope.” The invitation was heavy and had required three stamps. Pinchas noticed that only the two right stamps were postmarked. The third, leftmost, stamp was not marked at all.
“Look at this,” Pinchas said to his father. “This stamp is still good. After I soak it off, you can reuse it.”
“I’m not sure you’re allowed to reuse the stamp,” said Mr. Spitz.
“Why not?” asked Pinchas. “It wasn’t marked, so it’s still good. Anyway, the post office has no way of knowing whether it was already used or not. It’s a waste to throw it away.”
“I heard that the post office does not allow reusing the stamp,” replied Mr. Spitz. “It’s cheating the government.”
“How is it cheating?” argued Pinchas. “If they didn’t bother canceling the stamp, that’s their problem!”
“Reusing the stamp means you’re not paying for the letter you will send,” explained Mr. Spitz.
“Not true,” said Pinchas. “As long as you put on a stamp, it’s like paying. What if the post office had lost money and you found it? Would using the money be considered as not paying?”
“I don’t know if that’s the same,” responded Mr. Spitz. “Money has inherent value; the stamp is an indication that you paid the postal service for delivering the letter.”
“During the year Rabbi Dayan once came to give a shiur in our yeshiva,” said Pinchas. “He invited us to discuss business halacha issues with him. Would you mind if we asked him?”
“I’d love to meet him,” replied Mr. Spitz.
Mr. Spitz and Pinchas arranged to meet Rabbi Dayan. “Pinchas had a question for you,” Mr. Spitz said.
“If a stamp was not marked,” asked Pinchas, “is it permitted to reuse it?”
“Reusing a stamp that was mistakenly not marked is illegal according to the postal code and even punishable with a prison term,” said Rabbi Dayan. “It is also problematic halachically, though the reason may differ between the U.S. and Israel.”
“What is the issue?” asked Mr. Spitz.
“There are three issues,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “First is dina d’malchusa; second is hashavas aveidah; and third is theft.”
“Can you please explain?” asked Pinchas.
“Since reusing the stamp is illegal,” said Rabbi Dayan, “many authorities address this issue as one of dina d’malchusa, the law of the land. A government is entitled to pass laws that relate to taxes and the financial functioning of the government. These laws are binding also on the Jewish citizens of the country. As such, the rules of the U.S. postal service achieve also halachic authority.” (See Mishneh Halachos, 6:288)
“What did you mean about the difference between the U.S. and Israel?” asked Mr. Spitz.
“There is a major dispute between contemporary authorities whether the concept of dina d’malchusa applies also in Israel,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “Some say it applies, whereas others disagree. They base dina d’malchusa on the government’s consent for you to live in the land, whereas all Jews are partners in Eretz Yisrael and are entitled to live there with or without consent of the government.” (See Pischei Choshen, Geneivah 1:4; Yechaveh Da’as 5:63.)
Rabbi Dayan continued: “On the other hand, when dealing with a Jewish institution, there may be additional element of hashavas aveidah. The unmarked stamp is like a lost item of the postal service, though some consider the lost stamp as abandoned property [yeiush]. which you are not required to return.” (See also Shevet Halevi 5:173)
“Where does theft come in?” asked Mr. Spitz.
“Beyond the issues of dina d’malchusa and hashavas aveidah, some authorities suggest that the issue here is more severe,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “The stamp is not merely a government tax or a lost item but rather represents payment for the service of delivering the letter. By reusing an unmarked stamp you are asking the postal service to deliver the letter and perform a service while cheating them out the payment. This is a form of theft, which is prohibited whether it involves Jew or gentile, private delivery service or governmental.” (P.C., Geneivah 1:1, Oz Nidberu 6:74)