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Thought for the Day: Stolen Property -- Return the Object or Return Its Value?

If you take something that doesn't belong to you, you have to return it; right?  Well... not always.  The Torah reveals to us some interesting details in what are the appropriate actions to be taken in case one has erred and taken something that doesn't belong to him.

As an important aside, I'd like to take this opportunity to explain a detail in how I phrased that introduction. It is a mistake to say that the reason stealing is wrong, or eating pork is wrong, or tying a permanent knot on Shabbos is wrong is because the Torah says so.  Rather, we do them because HaShem -- our Creator, who therefore has the right to tell us what to do and how to do it -- told us not to do those things.  How do we know Ratzon HaShem?  HaShem has revealed that to us via His Torah.  How do we know that the Torah (Oral and Written) that we have today is an accurate revelation of His Will?  That's another question for another time.  The point is that the Torah is the medium by which we know Ratzon HaShem and not the source of rules that we slavishly follow.

When something is stolen, the first preference is always to return the stolen object intact to its rightful owner. There are three situations where one is forced into plan B, which is to reimburse the owner for the value of the object stolen.
  1. if the object has been changed; stolen wool woven into sweater, for example
  2. If the owner has given up hope of ever seeing his stuff again
  3. if it would be inordinately expensive for the robber to return the original object; a stolen beam has been built into a building, for example
Note that (1) and (3) are not the same.  In (1) the object itself has changed.  In our example, wool has been processed into yarn and then woven into a sweater; but the original wool is no more.  In (3), the object is intact and unchanged; in our example, the beam is there, but the building would have to be dismantled to get to it.

Interestingly, there are situations where the owner can suffer a big loss by having the object itself returned instead of its value.  Suppose Bob steals a truck load of matzah, for example, from Shmuly two weeks before Pesach.  Even though he returns it after Pesach, Shmuly is not a happy camper, but Bob will have fulfilled his obligation   Such is life.

According to all opinions, (1) is mi'di'oraisa, (3) is mi'd'rabanan and is known affectionately as תקנת השבים -- a rabbinic ordinance to exempt a robber from extra expenses that he might incur in returning the object that was enacted in order to remove that obstacle to a robber from doing t'shuva.  There is a machlokes about whether (2) is mi'di'oraisa or mi'd'rabanan.

You might be wondering how Chazal can allow the robber to keep something that the Torah says has to be returned.  If you don't know and you were not wondering... shame on you.


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