Keep the change?
Areader asked, “A few days ago at the grocery store the clerk gave me incorrect change – in my favor. Was/am I obligated to return the money?” There are several rationales one could use to “justify” keeping the excess change: 1. It’s not theft. You didn’t take the money, someone gave it to you.
2. There must have been times when they gave you too little change, so it all equals out in the end.
3. You need the NIS 10 more than Rami Levy does. Unfortunately for the recipient of the monetary windfall, none of those rationales stands up to scrutiny.
It’s true that it’s not technically theft to keep the money. You had no intention of stealing from the store.
Halachicly – and ethically – it’s like finding a lost object. If you find a lost object, and you know who it belongs to, and it won’t be a huge burden to return it, there’s no question that you’re obligated to return it. In some jurisdictions, keeping a lost object that you found is considered to be theft; in some places it’s called “theft by finding.”
But what if the person who lost the object isn’t a human being but just a corporation?
Corporations are owned by collections of human beings – the shareholders.
Even if a loss to any individual owner of a corporation is, in talmudic parlance, less than a pruta, that doesn’t justify keeping the lost object. The Shulhan Aruch, the leading Jewish law code, clearly states, “it is forbidden to steal, even the least amount, according to Torah law.” And that’s a good rule whether or not you’re religious. If you say it’s okay to steal a small amount, you’re opening the door to a thieving mentality and a breakdown in society.
Keeping the change might not be outright theft, but it has the smell of theft, and we should distance ourselves from such things.
Some rabbis would argue that if the person who lost an object isn’t Jewish we’re only obligated to return it if to do otherwise would cause a hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). This is one instance where the “liberal” movements of Judaism may be stricter than the ultra-Orthodox: most liberal Jews would insist that non-Jews be treated exactly the same as Jews when it comes to ethical laws; after all, we’re all created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), Jew and Gentile.
The fact that on other occasions you may have been given too little change also offers no excuse. If you’re worried about that, be more careful about counting your change before you leave the store.
The fact that you need the money more than Rami Levy is equally irrelevant. You have to behave ethically towards everyone, both rich and poor. You’re not allowed to screw rich people – even if you feel they’ve been screwing you.
Returning excess change can also be a fun way to surprise people. On more than one occasion in the US I’ve been given the wrong change, or been undercharged for an item, and when I point this out to the clerk, the response is always one of surprise: “Oh wow, thanks!” People are less surprised here in Israel – which is a good thing.
It’s not always easy to return the “excess change.” Some years ago, my bank credited me a large ($10,000) deposit twice. While I briefly entertained thoughts of cashing out the money and closing the account, I instead contacted the bank and informed them of their error. It took them months to sort it out. I’d actually given up on getting them to take their money back when the audit department finally came looking for the money.
It’s also worth noting that if you have children with you when you encounter a situation like this, you can teach them an invaluable ethics lesson by doing the right thing in front of them. If you give your children great speeches about the importance of honesty and being a good and ethical person, but then keep the excess change (or lie about their age to get a discount for younger children), your behavior speaks much louder than your words.
As with everything, a Jewish approach to ethics leaves room for common sense. If it was a small amount of money – only a shekel or two – and you didn’t figure it out until later, and it would cost you more than the amount of the overage to return it, you don’t need to go that far. The right thing to do in that case would be to simply give the money to charity.
Keeping the change might not be outright theft, but it has the smell of theft
THE FACT that on other occasions you may have been given too little change also offers no excuse.