Keep the change?

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - BARRY LEFF The writer, a rabbi and busi­ness­man, an­swers eth­i­cal ques­tions from read­ers, guided by Halacha, phi­los­o­phy and com­mon sense. Di­vid­ing his time be­tween Jerusalem and the US, he writes about ethics at­ Read­ers are in­vited to

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.

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