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Thought for the Day: Stealing Is Not a Joke... Even When It Is Intended For One

I grew up fat and was always embarrassed that all my clothes were "husky" sizes.  (Nice euphemism, right?)  I finally managed to lose weight (after years and years of failure) in my early 20s.  The first time I bought a suit after that, the salesman complained that the suit wasn't fitting right because my rear end was too small.  I could have kissed him (but I didn't).  I did not grow up frum (to say the least), and it has been a struggle to learn halacha.  Someone recently complained after a shiur I gave to women that I demonstrated too much knowledge of halacha.  I could have kissed her (but I didn't).

Admittedly, though, I am a physicist at heart.  That means that I am much more interested in the underlying principles than any particular actual situation.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, that not only do the esoteric cases of the gemara not bother me... I, in fact, relish their ingenuity.  Halacha had been a struggle for me both because of it's own intricacy and my lack of deep interest.  I still struggle with the intricacy, but my interest has finally been ignited.  That happened as I realized more and more that the underlying principles can only be truly understood by appreciating the details of the halacha.

Take stealing, for example.  ("take stealing"... get it?  I slay me!)  If George the גנב steals from Neville the נגנב, then gets caught, he has to pay back double.  Unless George admits he stole and returns the goods on his own, in which case he just returns the stolen goods (or their value).  Unless he saw the witnesses coming.  Maybe in front of the court, maybe not.  Maybe any three Jewish men constitute a court for this purpose, may not.  And, anyway, the double payment is a קנס/fine, which a Jewish court does not levy nowadays.  Except if Neville grabs some stuff or cash from George, then the court will not force Neville to return it.  Unless George's admission and contrition would have really gotten him of the hook for that fine.  Unless and except, unless and except, unless and except...

But when is that going to happen and who cares anyway?  Don't Chazal themselves say, רחמנא ליבא בעי/HaShem really wants our good intentions?  Consider, if you will, an actual case.  Four young men shmoozing in a yeshiva dorm.  Yehuda goes to take a shower, leaving his (expensive) camera on the desk.  Shimon, always the jokester, takes said camera and hides it in his room.  Yehuda comes back, notices the missing camera... and panics.  After some time, the other two blokes finally can't keep a straight face any more and tell Yehuda where his camera is.  Yehuda goes straight to Shimon's room, find him absent but the door unlocked.  Yehuda retrieves his camera... and a few other goodies that he feels add up to the fine (that he knows the court won't levy) that he knows he can keep.  Maybe as a joke, maybe as retribution.

It was just a joke, right?  Answer: Stealing is stealing; it's not a joke, even when it is.  Ok, but can Yehuda really keep the extra stuff?  It depends on all those details we thought were esoteric minutiae. Can the witnesses also be part of the court?  Can the accuser?  Was the admission before or after their testimony?  Does knowing they already talked to Yehuda disqualify Shimon from being able to make a confession and thus avoid the penalty of paying double?

How did a group of friends get into this mess?  What started as good natured ribbing has become vociferous strife.  Good natured ribbing is part of friendship, of course.  However, any action -- no matter how small and/or innocuous -- must be undertaken only with proper regard for what the Torah (read: Reality) regards as within bounds.  The Shulchan Aruch starts with mussar.  Every mussar sefer is founded on halacha.  Mussar and halacha do not go "hand in hand", nor even "hand in glove"; they are two sides of a single coin.

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