Parshat Behar: Preserving our Spirit

In Parshat Behar, the Torah codifies a story of human tragedy. When an Israelite is sold into slavery, having to leave behind him not only his home and family but his people and his faith, the Torah commands that his family has the right and obligation to redeem him:

  • He shall have the right of redemption even after he has given himself over. One of his kinsmen shall redeem him;
  • Or his uncle or his uncle’s son shall redeem him, or anyone of his family who is of his own flesh shall redeem him; or if he prospers, he may redeem himself. (Vayikra 25:48-49)

Part of the redemption process is evaluating the compensation his previous master deserves.

  • He shall compute with his purchaser the total from the year he gave himself over to him until the jubilee year; the price of his sale shall be applied to the number of years, as though it were for a term as hired laborer under the other’s authority;
  • If many years remain, he shall pay back for his redemption in proportion to his purchase price;
  • and if few years remain until the jubilee year, he shall so compute: he shall make payment for his redemption according to the years involved. (Ibid. v. 50-52)

The Torah demands that the payment for this redemption must be handled according to a specific set of normative laws; the Torah provides a lengthy, specific description of the calculation method for the payment. The Sages, reading the text sensitively, firmly hold that the Torah is not only deliberate and careful about the welfare of the Jewish slave; the Torah also watches out for the non-Jew’s monetary holdings and takes measures to ensure that he is not incur financial loss from the fact that they are redeeming his slave.

Rabbi Akiva expanded this reading and established from it a principle:

Simeon stated that the following matter was expounded by R. Akiva when he arrived from Zifirin: ‘Whence can we learn that the robbery of a non-Jew is forbidden?From the significant words: After that he is sold, he may be redeemed again, [which implies that he could not withdraw and leave him [without paying the redemption money]. (Bava Kama 113)

Rabbi Akiva, who was active during one of the hardest times for Am Yisrael, the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt and the deep oppression and depression that the Jews experienced in its wake, boldly instructs that it is forbidden to steal from a non-Jew. Rambam (Maimonides) expands the discussion about this moral claim even more:

What the masses think and even some of the worthy ones that deceptions are allowed with non-Jews is not true and an incorrect notion. God in his Holy Torah spoke of he who sold himself to an idolater or idolatry itself and explicitly said he should be exact with the buyer … this is so when the Torah speaks of a non-Jew who is under your control, let alone a gentile who is not under your control… So too, it is forbidden to cheat and trick, forge and falsify in our transactions with all non-Jews. The Sages, peace be upon them, said we must not deceive any person, even a non-Jew, and it is more grievous if it will lead to Hillul HaShem (desecration of God’s Name). These evil actions will also engrain in the person bad qualities. God attested that he despises these actions regardless to who they were done to, and he said that they are an abomination to the Lord your God, all those who do injustice. (Rambam’s commentary to the Mishna, Tractate Keilim, Chapter 12)

Rambam stresses that beyond the basic monetary problem in stealing—one certainly cannot derive benefit from someone else’s money, whether a Jew or a non-Jew—is also a moral problem regarding a person who steals, for stealing will cause evil traits to be established permanently in the person’s character.

What About Non-Jews?

The sugya in the Babylonian Talmud, which recognizes stealing from a non-Jew as a grave prohibition, maps out two areas in which this restriction does not belong: deriving benefit from a non-Jew’s mistake, and benefiting from an item that a non-Jew lost. As opposed to stealing, “mistakes” and “missing items” are events that the non-Jew caused on his own — he either lost an item of his or he made an error in keeping track of items he sold. In cases like this, the Jew is not responsible for creating the damage; nonetheless he wants to benefit from the ramifications of such damage — he wants to keep the lost item for himself, or he wants to benefit from the mistake the non-Jew made. The Amora’im are lenient in these two areas, and both the Rambam and the Shulhan Aruch ruled likewise.

Do the right thing.I confess that these halakhot are difficult for me from a moral perspective. Is it possible that תורת ה’ תמימה, God’s perfect Torah, say that a Jew who possesses an item that his non-Jewish neighbor lost is not obliged to return the item? Is it possible that a person, aware that a non-Jewish storekeeper made a mistake about a price, does not need to set the record straight and tell the storekeeper that he was mistaken?

I do not have a full response to this difficult question, but I can give two meaningful perspectives:

  1. It is already brought down in the Gemara: “Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair says: In an instance in which there is a Hilul Hashem, even the non-Jew’s lost item is forbidden [to use]”. In light of this assertion, in any instance in which there is a Hilul Hashem, we are obligated to return a lost item or come to terms with someone’s mistake. The poskim, in fact, also formulated the positive aspect of this law: “If he returned the item in order to exalt God’s name so all will know that Jews are people of faith, this action should be commended”. There is no doubt that in this day and age, the era of the “global village,” the danger of Hillul HaShemis stronger than in the past, and thus we should be highly meticulous and should distance ourselves from anything and everything that could desecrate God’s great Name.
  1. Me’iri also comments on this sugya:
    Although we must not steal from pagans and those who are not bound by the ways of religion…nor do we have to seek them out in order to return their lost item. Moreover, we may keep the item, since returning an item is an act of chasidut; we are not required to return the item to those who have no religion. So, too, is the law regarding his mistakes, if he made the mistake through no endeavor or cause from our side…
    However, those nations who are bound in the way of religion and worship God in some aspect – even though their faith is far from our faith – are not part of this exemption. They are like the People of Israel for purposes of these laws: returning lost items and correcting their mistakes and for all other issues without any distinctions.

According to Me’iri, these halakhot do not relate to the cultured nations who live in our environment. When dealing with our non-Jewish neighbors — Muslims, Christians, and even those who lack a faith—we are obligated to return their lost items and to give them awareness of their mistakes, exactly on the same level of obligation that we have towards our fellow Jews.

We should watch out for others’ money, lest we lose our spirit.

Rav Yossef Slotnik
Rav Yossef Slotnik, a member of Beit Hillel, heads the overseas program at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. Born in the United States and raised in Israel, he studied for many years at Yeshivat Har Etzion. His focus of study is on revealing the hidden messages of Talmudic sugyot. In addition to teaching in the yeshiva, Rav Slotnik participates in interfaith dialogue and teaches Tanach at secular kibbutzim.

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