Theft in the World of Business

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Some acts are clearly forms of theft, but what about the borderline cases? An expert applies Jewish law on theft to some workplace scenarios and shows its theological underpinnings. Reprinted with permission from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Jason Aronson).

"Who is a thief? One who stealthily takes money [or an asset] that belongs to another without the knowledge [or consent] of the owner; for example, he who puts his hand into the pocket of another and takes out his money, without the owner being aware of it. However, one who publicly takes [another's property] by force, and against the owner's will, is not a thief but a gazlan, a robber" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft 1:3,4).  In accordance with this definition, Maimonides includes within the laws of theft also fraud through weights and measures, as well as forbidding the buying of stolen ethics

In almost all countries today, legislation exists to prosecute thieves and to prevent theft. Similarly, weights and measures are regulated in many countries by public authorities, and infractions carry penalties, thus protecting society against abuse. The halakhic [Jewish legal] rules, therefore, might seem superfluous were it not for the insistence that theft refers to stealthy and secret acts. Most economic crimes are conducted in exactly this atmosphere.

A whole area of accepted business practices exists within which the distinction between moral and immoral acts is blurred. Gray areas develop within which the individual operates without being able to discuss openly what forms of behavior are permissible. In this secretive atmosphere, a pattern of underground anti-ethical actions is easily developed. Here the rabbinic discussion of theft, stealth, and secretive crimes is a pertinent one as it creates a moral climate within which people are able to operate ethically.

Perhaps two examples will suffice to make clear the halakhic distinction between permissible and nonpermissible actions that may be considered to be theft.

Is Profit on Per Diem Theft?

An employee receives a per diem [daily expense allowance] for work done away from his home base. If he is willing and able to manage on less, using cheaper transport, board, and lodging, does keeping the excess constitute theft?theft

Perhaps a relevant halakhic attitude may be seen in the talmudic discussion concerning the housekeeping money given to a woman by her husband. "If the husband gave her a sum of money with which to conduct the affairs of the home, and she is thrifty and careful she may keep the difference [between her actual costs and the sum given]. If, however, she is to be reimbursed for money spent on the home, she may obtain only that which she actually spent" (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 65b, codified as law in the Shulhan Arukh).

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Dr. Meir Tamari

Dr. Meir Tamari, former chief economist in the office of the Governor of the Bank of Israel, is director of the Center for Business Ethics at the Jerusalem College of Technology. His books include Al Chet: Sins in the Marketplace (Jason Aronson) and Jewish Values in Our Open Society: A Weekly Torah Commentary (Jason Aronson).