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Thought for the Day: The Mitzvah to Return Stolen Goods Is a Real, Live Mitzvah

The transgression of a lav sh'nitek l'asei (a prohibition whose violation can be repaired by a positive action) lies somewhere between bitul asei (failing to perform a mandated action; which it's more severe than) and a simple lav (prohibition; which it's not as bad as).  Rabbeinu Yona in Sha'arei T'shuva discusses that point at some length.

I always read "l'asei" part of "lav sh'nitek l'asei" as meaning that you can essentially undo the effect of the lav be doing something; no harm no foul, sort of thing.  You left a korban past its expiration date, so burn it; no harm, no foul.  You stole something, so return it; no harm, no foul.  Yet again, I was wrong.  (At this point maybe I should just start noting when I am actually right...)  In fact, the action really does get credited as fulfillment of a positive commandment; not just a good deed.

Howso?  The mishna in Bava Kama at the bottom of 108b describes the following very sad situation:  a son steals from his father and the father dies before they have a chance to reconcile.  To make things easy to calculate, let's say the son stole $1,000 from his father (alav ha'shalom), the estate is worth $9,000, and there is one other son.  Since there are only two heirs, this should be easy.  The son who stole, let's call him Rob, owes $1000 to the estate, but he is getting back half of the total value of the estate.  Once Rob repays the estate, he'll get $5,000 (making his net $4,000) and this brother, we'll call him Angelo, gets $5,000.

We all know that naive spelled backwards is Evian; anyone who would pay that much money for a bottle of water is obviously going to get this wrong also.  In point of fact, as the mishna details, that won't do.  What Bob actually needs to do is to give the $1,000 to Angelo, then Bob and Angelo split the $9,000.  Making Bob's net take $3,500 and Angelo walks away with a cool $5,500!  Why?  Because if we do things the naive way, Bob ends up not fulfilling the mitzvah asei of ha'shavas g'zeila; he would be $500 short.  This way (aka, the right way), though, Bob gets to fulfill the Will of his Creator and go to heaven at least reconciled with his Father in heaven; though may still have some explaining to do to his father who is in earth.

What if there's no brothers?  Then Bob pays his father's brothers.  What if there are no brothers or uncles?  Then Bob puts the money in the pushke and declares (quietly), "This is the money stolen from dad."

What if Bob stole from a ger who has no halachik heirs?  If the victim forgives the theft and doesn't want the money back, does that help Bob, or does Bob really have to give away the money?  Those are great questions.  Chazal ask and answer those and a bunch more even better ones!

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