How do you catch a thief?

One of the concerns of those residing in a dormitory is being certain that their money and possessions do not get stolen. There was an instance in a Yeshiva dorm where a number of students discovered that the money they had left in their drawers or places that they had thought were safe, was missing. After discussion amongst them, they had a prime suspect.

They wondered how to get the suspect to talk and figured they would get him drunk along the lines of: “With the pure You act purely, with the crooked You act perversely.”[1] They invited him to a party. He got heavily drunk and revealed that indeed he was the thief and he disclosed where he had hidden the money. Afterwards, the others felt guilty and wondered if what they had done was permitted. Besides the fact that they publicly disgraced the thief, in his drunken state he not only missed saying Birkas Hamazoune after the meal, but Shacharis the next morning as well.

We find a precedent for this in the Talmud. Rebbe Meir, Rebbe Yehuda and Rebbe Yossi were traveling on the road and sought lodging. Rebbe Meir always gave attention to a person’s name, while the others were not as concerned. They came upon an inn-keeper whose name was Kidor. Rebbe Meir reckoned that the person was evil, for his name Kidor is found in the Torah: “Ki dor tahpuchos heima, for they are a generation of reversals, children in whom I have no trust.”[2] Rebbe Meir did not trust Kidor to hold his money, while the others gave their money pouches to Kidor for safe keeping.

When Rebbe Yehuda and Rebbe Yossi asked for their pouches back, the inn-keeper denied that they had ever given them to him. They brought their host to a store and gave him some wine, hoping that he would reveal where he had placed their money. Meanwhile, they noticed lentils on his moustache. They left the inn-keeper and went to his wife to deliver a message. They told her that her husband had said, she should return the money to them. As a sign that indeed he had sent them, they told her that he said they should reveal that the inn-keeper and his wife had eaten lentils for breakfast. She returned the pouches to them. With their money in hand, they confronted the inn-keeper. In response, the inn-keeper killed his wife.[3]

This was a case of getting someone drunk in order to have him, ‘spill the beans.’ Although the technique was used by the Rabbinic sages, it would not give license to use it under all circumstances. However, when it comes to thievery, it would be appropriate, even if it would cause the thief humiliation and not being in position to participate in prayers. Why? Someone who stole has a constant obligation to return the stolen goods.[4] The sooner that issue is rectified, the better off the thief would be.[5]

How quickly do we act to steer people to improve their ways?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Hershel D. Becker

[1] Shmuel 2 22:27 (Haftorah for Haazinu)

[2] Haazinu 32:20

[3] Yoma 83b

[4] Vayikra 5:23

[5] Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein Vehaarev Na 1 pp.438-440