By Rabbi Daniel Travis
Reuven took a walk during the wheat harvest and found dudaim in the field,
and he brought them to his mother Leah. (Bereshith 29:25)
When strolling in private or even public gardens, it is forbidden to cut
flowers or to pick from the trees. It is understood that permission was
only given to walk in the gardens and not to take anything from them.1
Reuven was well aware of this, and made sure to take wildflowers which were
ownerless.2 It is not necessary for the Torah to tell us that Reuven was
not a thief, for all of Yaakov's children were exceedingly righteous. The
Torah is instructing us about the subtleties of honesty. After her fourth
child, Leah had not given birth to any more offspring. The dudaim had
medicinal properties as a fertility drug and Reuven's motivation in picking
them was for the honor and well-being of his mother Leah. Inspired by such
deep feelings, he could have easily justified taking these plants from a
private domain; an act which is considered theft. His single-minded desire
to act truthfully enabled him to overcome this rationalization, and to act
with complete honesty.
No matter how good one's intentions are, one must always consider the
ramifications of his actions on the belongings of others. Although nearly
every other mitzvah in the Torah can be set aside for the sake of saving a
life, the offense of theft is so serious that even to save a life you are
only permitted to take someone else's property on condition that you pay
for it later.3 One is not allowed to steal - i.e., to take without paying -
even to save a life! When other, less urgent mitzvoth are concerned, it is
totally forbidden to take possession of someone else's belongings.4 If, in
the process of performing a mitzvah, a person damages the property of
others, he is fully responsible to pay for everything he damaged, his noble
How was Reuven rewarded for refraining from theft? His descendants, who
were shepherds, were given a portion of land with abundant lush grassland
and meadows. Although shepherds are generally infamous for grazing their
sheep in the pastures of others, since God had granted them a portion of
land which had plenty of pasture, Reuven's offspring were spared from
transgressing the prohibition of theft.6
1. Kaf HaChaim, Orach Chaim 549, quoting Responsa Yafe L'Lev 3:1.
2. Bereshith Rabbah 72:2; Sanhedrin 99b.
3. Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 359:4.
4. At times it may be permitted to temporarily borrow someone else's
belongings in order to fulfill a mitzvah if one is absolutely sure that the
owner will not need them during that time, and that the owner would not mind
that you borrowed them. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 14:4. However, many
halachic authorities disagree with this. See Kaf HaChaim and Aruch
5. Responsa Chovoth Yair 207; Pithchei Tshuva Choshen Mishpat 378:4.
6. Commentary of the Yafe To'ar Bereshith Rabbah 72:1.
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