Sunday, August 29, 2010

Neki Chapai'im - A Lesson on Theft

I read this story recently, and found it VERY, VERY significant. With Spinka Rebbes running around, and with Lakewood roshei yeshiva accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in dirty money, and so on, and so on, and so on, the common belief is that if the money comes from a non-Jew, then it is mutar (permissible). Yes, this is what many in our community believe: that it is permissible to steal from a non-Jew. I have gone over this subject over and over again with talmidei chochomim over the past ten months and in the final analysis, what I've learned is that if you study the gemara alone, relating to this matter, it may seem as though theft is mutar. But if you study it with the poskim (those who makes decisions on the law), it is clearly, clearly asur (prohibited) to steal money from a non-Jew. And so we have the following story that takes place on Rosh Hashanah.

Reb Shmuel Abba of Zichlin was davening for the amud (leading the prayers) on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. When he got into the 24th chapter of Tehillim (Psalms), the chassidim looked up from their siddurim (prayer books). "Mi ya'ale b'har Hashem...neki chapai'im uvar leivav (Who will ascend to the mountain of G-d....those with clean hands and a pure heart)." "NEKI CHAPAI'IM, NEKI CHAPAI'IM!" shouted Reb Shmuel Abba. He began running up and down the aisles shouting these words (CLEAN HANDS, CLEAN HANDS!). Just then, a man in the back of the shul hurried out the door. The Rebbe went back to the amud, and continued where he left off. The chassidim were baffled.

The day after the close of Rosh Hashanah, everything became clear. This man had stopped in to a neighboring town of Zichlin to pay off a debt he owed to a non-Jew. After giving over the money, this non-Jew wrote the man a receipt, placed his money on the table, and walked out of the room. Now this Jew's yetzer harah (evil inclination) got the best of him, and he couldn't help but grab the money from the table and run. Since he was near the town of Zichlin, he decided to spend Rosh Hashanah with the Rebbe for what he thought would be a memorable New Year. He didn't know just how memorable it would turn out to be. The non-Jew had meanwhile sent out a large contingent to look for the man, but the Jew had already reached Zichlin.

As the man was on his way home from Zichlin at the close of Rosh Hashanah, he was caught by the police, and arrested. Remembering that the Rebbe was already aware of the incident, he sent him a desperate telegram while being detained. He figured that if he denied the charge, the police might rule that the non-Jew was a liar. Besides, this way he would get to keep the money because, after all, this wasn't real theft. It was theft from a non-Jew, and that doesn't count. This man had mentioned in his message to the Rebbe that he was afraid he would be put into jail. The Rebbe responded, "it says in our Torah that one is required to pay back double or even four or five times the amount for theft. But it doesn't say anything about imprisonment. Return the money AT ONCE, and you will be a free man. But you must return it at once. The money does not belong to you." The man reluctantly returned the money, and was freed.

We have no doubt about Reb Shmuel Abba's opinion on the matter of theft.

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