The most basic and indispensable ethical obligations apply equally to all.
Q. The store accidentally gave me merchandise I didn’t pay for. Do I have to return it? Does it matter if the storeowner is Jewish?
A. I have been writing the Jewish ethicist column for over five years. From the very first column my approach has been that my answers to readers’ questions embody universal principles of ethics that are based on Jewish law. Thus, I never vary my answers based on the religious background or level of the individuals involved. Readers occasionally mention in their letters whether or not they or the person they are dealing with are Jewish, as this reader did, and I always emphasize that this does not affect my reply. I never explained the reason for this lack of discrimination, and indeed I would consider a lack of discrimination a basic principle of ethics. In this column I would like to explain the basis for my approach.
First of all, the most basic and indispensable ethical obligations apply equally to all. Stealing is equally forbidden among Jews, among non-Jews, and between Jews and non-Jews. (1) So are fraud and other deceptive practices. (2)
But it is also true that some more refined ethical commandments formally apply only to interactions among Jews. Why this limitation? I think that the answer is simple. The ideal is for all of mankind to adopt these principles. However, the Giver of the Torah was well aware that the educational process leading to this ethical redemption would require millennia. So He imposed them on His chosen people, intending them to serve as a “light to the nations” which would then spread them among all those created in His image.
Should then the Jews adopt these principles, but apply them without discrimination in their dealings with all? This too is not practical. Asking only the Jewish people to apply these principles in a completely unilateral fashion in their dealings with other peoples is a recipe for exploitation. The solution is to make these commandments obligatory in relationships among Jews, in order that the benefits of these enlightened ethics should become evident and customary among all mankind. Then they will equally govern relationships among Jews, among non-Jews, and between Jews and non-Jews.
There are a number of prominent sources that I think make this conclusion clear. One is the great medieval authority Nachmanides. In his commentary on the Torah, Nachmanides discusses the commandment “And you shall do what is straight and right” (Deuteronomy 6:18). Here the Torah is commanding us to act in an ethical way, yet the commandment begs the question of how we know what course of action is the ethical one. Nachmanides explains that we are able to deduce general ethical principles from the specific mandates of the many laws of interpersonal behavior, principles that apply even in instances that may be beyond the scope of the law.
For it is impossible to mention in the Torah all of man’s conduct with his neighbors and friends, all his business transactions, and all the institutions of community and all of the nations. Rather, after having mentioned a number of them, such as “Do not go about as a talebearer” (Leviticus 19:16), “Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge” (Leviticus 19:18), “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16), “Do not curse the deaf” (Leviticus 19:14), “Stand before the aged”(Leviticus 19:32), and others like them, [Scripture] goes back to say in a general way that one should do the good and the straight in all matters.
Nachmanides refers to institutions of “all of the nations”, yet includes in his list a number of commandments which formally apply only to Jews. In fact, the very first verse cited states in full, “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people,” while the next one reads, “Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the members of your people.” The resolution of this paradox is simple. As a specific command, these directives are binding only among Jews. But as an application of the general mandate to act in a straight and right fashion, they govern “all the institutions of the community and all of the nations.” If we are among enlightened nations that acknowledge these principles, then part of the straight and right behavior commanded by the Torah is to abide by these principles in our dealings with them as well.
RETURNING LOST OBJECTS
Let us bring an additional example of a commandment which is explicitly binding only among Jews, yet is viewed by the Talmud as a universal ethical obligation. The Torah commands us to return lost objects: “Don’t see you brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and ignore them; surely return them to your brother.” (Deuteronomy 22:1.) In the entire passage the Torah refers to “your brother,” meaning that this commandment only applies to the lost object of another member of the Jewish people.
Yet the Talmud cites the example of Rabbi Shmuel bar Sosretai who found a valuable jewel belonging to the queen in Rome. The queen announced that anyone who returned the jewel within 30 days would receive a reward, but anyone found with it after 30 days would be executed. Rabbi Shmuel intentionally waited until the 30-day period was up, and then returned the jewel. Of course the grateful queen tried to find a way to exempt him from punishment. She asked him, perhaps you were out of town? Perhaps you didn’t hear the warnings? He assured her that he was aware of the warnings, and for that precise reason he waited to return the jewels: “So that you should not say that I returned it because of fear of you, instead of the fear of the Holy One.” (3)
How can Rabbi Shmuel bar Sosretai say that he returned the jewels to a Roman noble “because of the fear of the Holy One”? How could he have risked his very life to dramatize this claim? We have seen that the Torah only commands us to return lost objects of fellow Jews!
Again, the answer is simple. The ethical imperative to return the lost objects of “your brother” extends to non-Jews when they can be educated to behave towards us in a brotherly fashion — as was evidently the case in the Rome of 1700 years ago, at least among the educated higher classes.
We find this same pattern over and over. The exact same passages chosen to illustrate that in a jungle-like ethical environment Jews are well advised to adapt themselves to the law of the jungle surrounding them, also explain that in a more enlightened and elevated society our relationship to our neighbors should conform to these norms. In a well-known passage in the Talmud, we learn that some prominent Jews were able to obtain great bargains from sellers who were not aware of the value of their own merchandise. This practice is strictly forbidden among Jews, but is accepted in a “buyer beware” marketplace which used to be the norm. Yet this same passage informs us that we are not allowed to steal from non-Jews or mislead them, and if there is a desecration of God’s name involved we must return lost objects. (4)
When would not returning an object involve a desecration of God’s name, that is, give Torah observance a bad name? Precisely in a society where such returns are a general norm. If everyone adopts an attitude of finders-keepers, there is no disgrace for Jews also to adopt this norm in their relationships with their neighbors. But wherever taking advantage of a seller’s mistake is considered disgraceful, it would be a disgrace for Jews to display this behavior.
Regarding your particular situation, Maimonides writes: “Whether one deals with a Jew or with a heathen, one is forbidden by the Torah from giving short measure and he must return [any excess he received]. Likewise it is forbidden to mislead a non-Jew in an account, as it is written, “Make an accounting with his owner.” . . . And the Torah says, “Anyone who does this, any doer of injustice, is an abomination before the Lord God.” (5) Maimonides further writes that even if the Jew did not mislead the non-Jew but rather the seller made the mistake by himself, the purchaser is obligated to remind him to check the account. Acting otherwise, writes Maimonides, leads to a desecration of God’s name. (6)
So you should certainly inform the seller of his mistake and return the excess merchandise you received without payment. If you already consumed it, you should state that you discovered you accidentally received extra merchandise, and you should offer to pay the seller. It doesn’t matter if you ,or the seller, are Jewish or non-Jewish, as long as you live in a civilized country where such behavior is expected and admired.
SOURCES: (1) See Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 348 (2) See Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 228. (3) Jerusalem Talmud Bava Metzia 2:5. (4) Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma 113b. (5) Maimonides’ Code, Geneivah 7:8 (6) Maimonides’ Code Gezeilah 11:5