Charitable Return – Can a gift to charity ever substitute for paying what we owe?

Q. I’m embarrassed to return money I owe someone. Can I just give the money to charity?

A. Jewish tradition places the highest value on returning property to its owner. Anyone who takes someone else’s property, even inadvertently, is obligated to return it. As we pointed out in a previous column, we are generally obliged to return even lost objects, though the finder bears no responsibility for their loss. Giving the money to charity is not an option.

The most extreme example is the case of someone who denies under oath that he is holding someone else’s property. Of this the Torah states, “And he must return the object which he stole, or the wages he withheld, or the deposit which was left with him, or the lost object which he found” (Leviticus 5:23). Due to the unique injustice done the owner in this case, the owner must be sought even in a distant land, and even at great expense. (1) In the normal case, we must use reasonable means, but not extraordinary ones, to effect a return.

Sometimes, there is no way of locating the owner of an object. For instance, a storeowner who short-weights customers, or someone who steals public funds, can never identify and locate the specific individuals from whom he stole. In this case, our sages instruct us to use the funds for “public benefit”. (2) But even this is not a simple case of giving the money to charity, so as to repent for the deed. Rashi explains that this is in fact an alternative, and inferior, way of returning the money. If the money is used for public benefit, for example a well, then chances are high that the true owner will also benefit from the contribution.

This understanding has an important practical consequence. If I don’t know exactly who the money belongs to but I know that the owner comes from a particular neighborhood or community, then the money should be given to something which benefits that community — not to the most “worthy” recipient.

The conclusion is that giving money to charity is never an appropriate substitute for returning it to its rightful owner. In all cases we should do our utmost to ensure that the original owner of money or objects gets the benefit of his property.

The root of this insistence is the Jewish approach to property in general. In Jewish tradition, human ownership is viewed as an expression of Divine providence. Ultimately, it is God who provides us with all our needs, as it says in Psalms (145:16), “You open Your hand, and satisfy the needs of all living.” However, human beings take an active role in fulfilling this Providential plan. If a certain individual was granted property by God, this means that only the owner can ideally fulfill God’s will for these resources; thus, it becomes the responsibility of all to try to restore them to their rightful stewards.

(1) SA CM 367:1. (2) Beitza 29a, SA CM 366.