God said to Noach, "The end of all flesh has come before Me; the world is
filled with crime because of them. I am going to destroy them with the
earth." (Bereshith 6:13)
The Great Flood destroyed almost all life on earth because of theft. The
items people stole were worth less than the value of a prutah - a very
small sum of money indeed. They were items of such little value that a
beith din would not even deal with their theft. 1 Why did such "petty larceny" warrant the destruction of so
many living creatures?
Upon closer inspection we see that this seemingly minor crime can have
very far-reaching ramifications. Large-scale theft will never lead to the
major breakdown and eventual downfall of society, for society can protect
itself from such crimes with prisons and other penalties. It is the small
crimes which hover below the threshold of legal jurisdiction that drive a
society to ruin, for the justice system cannot prevent them.2
Halachah forbids us to steal even something whose value is less than a
prutah.3 Surely people do not care
about such a small sum of money - can we not assume that the owner will be
willing to forgive the theft of something of so little worth? Although he
may pardon the actual loss, the owner would certainly be distressed to
know that he had been robbed of any amount at all. From the moment the
owner experiences that distress until the moment he pardons the action the
thief is liable for transgressing the prohibition against stealing. Since
the owner will be disturbed that he has been robbed, the halachah declares
that the action is forbidden.4
Since objects that are used frequently can be used up very quickly, we
should never assume that the owner will not mind if we "take only one."
The person who left a jar of instant coffee in the office, for example,
may be quite frustrated to find it empty after others have helped
themselves. Unless you are absolutely certain that your taking a spoonful
or two will not matter to the owner (i.e., the owner has told you, or has
written so on the jar), helping yourself to someone else's coffee would
constitute an act of theft, and a transgression of a Torah prohibition. In
the same vein, one can assume that a hotel owner does not want visitors to
take home the hotel's towels and washcloths, and that an airline company
would not appreciate people taking pillows and blankets from the airplane
for their home use.
A QUESTION OF INTEGRITY-If someone attends a wedding or another simcha,
may he bring food home for his wife or family? Answer in forthcoming e-
mail. Other questions welcomed.
1. Bereshith Rabbah 31:5.
2 Commentary of Rav S. R. Hirsh.
3 Sanhedrin 57a.
4 Sema, Choshen Mishpat 359:2; also, Maggid Mishneh on the
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft 1:1.