Monday, April 29, 2013

Stealing in order to help others - is it permitted?

In a previous Post  I mentioned the view of Rav Elchonon Wasserman that the prohibitions regarding bein adam l'chavero only apply where the act is destructive and meant to harm. He learns this from the Rambam (Hilchos Chovel 5:1) which states that hitting another is only prohibited if done derech nitzoiyon (strife or vanquishing). He says this rule applies not only to hitting but lashon harah and hatred.

A significant problem with making this sweeping generalization comes in the area of theft. Can a person steal something for a joke or with intent to pay - without any desire to harm the victim? More relevant to the issue of education - can a teacher or parent take away a student or child's possession - for the sake of chinuch or to prevent sin? Can you take away a neighbor's computer to prevent him/her from using the internet? Can you take away someone smartphone solely because you think it is for the person's benefit not to have it - even if you don't pay for it?

Rabbi Yehuda Hertzl Henkin (Techumin Volume 8) has a long article on this and concludes that despite being a common practice - there is no justification for taking things from another person against their will. 
Bava Metzia (61b):Why did the Torah (Vayikra 19:11) need to explicitly prohibit stealing [since  we learn the prohibition of causing financial loss from ribis and fraud while the prohibition of stealing in the Ten Commandments refers to kidnapping a person – Rashi]? The answer is as it was taught: One cannot steal just to aggravate [Rashi] another nor can one steal even if he intended to repay double for it [because he wants to give the victim something but he knows he won’t accept and therefore he uses stealing as a pretext to give him money – Rashi].
Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuva 3:85):  Do not steal or suppress or lie (Vayikra 19:11). Our Sages (Bava Metzia 61b) state that “not stealing” means if it it is only to upset the person. In other words a person should not say I will steal his possession in order to upset him and I will take while he is watchin and I will warn him that he needs to be more careful in watching his possession and then I will return it to him. Similarly it is prohibited to steal possessions from another’s house and use them and then return them. Nor should you secretly take your own possessions from a thief after they were stolen so that you don’t look like a thief. 
An apparently refutation of this is in the following gemora - but the Meiri says it is not a problem
Bava Basra(16a): Rava asked the meaning of “The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me...(Job 29:13)....This verse alludes to the fact that Job used to steal the fields of orphans [and the orphans were convinced that they had lost the land – Rashi] and he would improve the fields and then give them back.
Meiri (Bava Basra 16a):  There are sins which are done with good intentions and nevertheless they are not permitted. But this seems to be contradicted by this gemora where Job is praised because he would steal land from the poor and orphans and improve it and then return it. That is because Job was well known as such a tzadik – that even though he didn’t explain this reason – every knew that was his intent in taking the land. The gemora describes this as theft only as a general term of taking property of others – but according to my understanding it did not mean to say it was a sinful taking of the land. ... We can see from these cases that even when a person intends to do good and that should permit the act – nevertheless we are told that good intent is not enough to permit stealing in any form even if it is public knowledge what you are doing. That is because this gemora explicitly said not to steal even if you intend to pay back double. This requires further clarification. Nevertheless even the great Rabbis indicated that it is prohibited. Nevertheless the major difficulty has been removed regarding Job.
[I will be adding sources to this post regarding this serious exception to Rav Wasserman's assertion and possibly other exceptions.]


  1. very interesting -
    I wish I knew this many years ago...

  2. In the case of a student one could suggest that parental agreement at the start of the year as a term of entrance to the school would override the concern. For example, the school could put into their contract "We reserve the right to confiscate student items as punishment if deemed necessary". Parental agreement should mean it's acceptable and the child goes in knowing this could happen.

  3. however, it is also a very dangerous and antinomian idea - eventually it will lead to Sabatean type justifications for any aveira.

  4. Stealing to help others is the number one business venture here in Brooklyn. Won't say which area.

  5. Based on thiz concept rabbi michael brodie should be a great guy. After all he lied for a good cause and no jarm was intended

  6. Honestly, without a lot of clarification I don't think it is productive to include the question of whether a "teacher or parent take away a student or child's possession."

    First of all, with regard to to parents, as a general rule the issue doesn't even arise because the property actually belongs to the parent. Secondly, if we could come up with a case where the property literally belongs to the child, are we really going to claim that if the parent strongly disapproves of the child using the item (say, a ten year old watching "his" television all night long) that the parent has no recourse except to kick the child out of the house (with his television)?

    This second issue is true for teachers as well. The complication there, of course, is that that, once again, the property is actually the parent's. As Garnel pointed out, when you send your child to school, there is a basic understanding that teachers have the right to confiscate items that are not allowed in the school or are being used disruptively. (Of course, this doesn't stop some parents from getting upset about this.)

    In most schools that I am familiar with, confiscations are generally not permanent, and depending on the situation, the item is usually given back to the child or to the parents. Arguing that a teacher doesn't have this option is basically just arguing that the child will need to be expelled from the classroom or school.


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.