by Yisrael Rutman
Am Echad Resources
March 22, 2002
The Sages of the Talmud knew all about the temptation to steal. Most people,
they said, in one way or another, succumb to it. But even those insightful
scholars may never have dreamed of the extent people would go to in the most
affluent society in history.
According to a recent report in The New York Times, the trendiest
restaurants in America are constant targets of theft. Reporter Donna Paul
interviewed dozens of restaurateurs and discovered that "from $3 water
glasses to $1,200 silver ice buckets, from vintage photographs hanging on
the walls to scented candles burning in the bathrooms, if it isn't nailed
down, diners have walked off with it." In one Manhattan eatery, a designer
sconce was ripped from the wall in the men's room during the dinner service.
People who are able to spend hundreds of dollars on a unique dining
experience are obviously not poor. What is it, then, that emboldens some of
them to take that enticing Peugeot pepper mill or a sample of the darling
Frette linens? Well, as one customer said, "I rationalized that the
restaurant probably had 200 of them," and so she swiped a little
mother-of-pearl caviar spoon.
Of course, this line of thinking ultimately empties out the proprietor's
inventory, not to mention his faith in humanity. It leads to the daunting
experience of the owners of one restaurant who hand-carried thousands of
pieces of silverware from Italy and France, only to have all of them stolen
over the years. Now they use second-rate imitations.
The service industry is taking counter-measures: the installation of
surveillance cameras, the training of staff in professional vigilance, and,
last but not least, bolting and screwing down anything of value aside from
food and flatware.
Of course, all of this only serves at best to manage the problem, but does
not solve it. Is there no way to teach people that stealing, in whatever
form and for whatever reason, is wrong?
In a society whose traditional moral restraints have taken a back seat to
the pursuit of material possessions, it is difficult to see how. Jewish
tradition, however, does offer a solution: Lo Tignov. Thou Shalt Not Steal.
Only recognition of a God-given law that allows for no rationalizations or
loopholes can ultimately curb the natural human tendency to covet what
belongs to others. No system can work as effectively as the internal
security system of knowing that we live under the surveillance of the Master
of the Universe.
But how is such a recognition inculcated? Only by constant emphasis. The
Torah's prohibition against theft is not only engraved on synagogue walls
and read aloud each year from the Torah, it is engraved on Jewish hearts
through education and example.
In a traditional Jewish educational system, the first exposure of a child to
Talmud is the chapter of "These are the lost items.," which concerns itself
with the imperative to restore lost property to its rightful owner. Anyone
imbued from childhood with the concept that God wishes that he locate a
wallet's owner will not likely consider shoplifting an acceptable
Meticulous honesty has always been an essential Jewish ideal. Abraham
proclaimed that "I took nothing from a thread unto a shoelace" from the king
of Sodom. Moses testified that he borrowed not even a donkey from the
public trust. Jacob labored for his father-in-law Laban, weathering the
chill of night and the heat of day to earn his honest wages, despite Laban's
having cheated his son-in-law "a hundred times over." Jacob could have
rationalized, but he didn't. As King David wrote, "Who can ascend the holy
mountain? He whose hands are clean [of theft]."
The only real solution to the breakdown of respect for the property of
others may not be fashionable in these "God-neutral" times. But the
experience of thousands of years have proven its efficacy. The only real
way to combat designer theft is with Designer obedience.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Yisrael Rutman lives in Israel, where he teaches Jewish Studies, edits
E-geress.org and writes for various publications.]
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