Is there a right way to catch a thief?

Money started disappearing in the dorm. After this happened a few times, Reuven realized that his friend Shimon would often sneak into his room and slip money into a pouch. A group of friends who were also victims trailed Shimon. They were sure he was the thief. However, they had no idea where Shimon hid the money. They reckoned, “With the crooked you act perversely,”[1] and devised a scheme. They’ll have a party, serve wine and make sure Shimon gets drunk. As the Talmud says, “Nichnas yayil, yatza sod, when wine goes in the secret comes out.”[2]

It worked. Shimon got stoned. In his drunken stupor he shared not only his escapades, but the place where he hid the money.

After the fact, the group wondered if the tactic they used was permitted. They had turned Shimon into a drunken fool subject to ridicule. They caused that he couldn’t say Bircas Hamazoune after his meal; nor was he able to daven Shacharis the next morning.

The Talmud brings a related incident. Rabbi Meir was very exacting regarding people’s names. Once he was traveling along with Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi. They came to an inn for lodging. They learned that the name of the owner was Kidor. Rabbi Meir thought of the sentence in the Torah, “Ki dor tahapuchos hemah, for they are children of reversals, in whom not to place trust.”[3] The meaning of the name made him suspect of the innkeeper.

Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi were not exacting with names. Before Shabbos they left their money with Kidor. Rabbi Meir did not. He hid his pouch by burying it near the grave of Kidor’s father. That night the father appeared to Kidor in a dream revealing that there was money nearby. In the morning, Kidor shared the dream and the Rabbis told him that there was no merit to it. Meanwhile, Rabbi Meir kept an eye on the grave site.

The next day, when the Rabbis prepared to leave, they went to pick up their money. Kidor denied ever having received it. They persuaded Kidor to have a drink with them in order to get some information from him. In the process they noticed he had lentil remnants in his moustache. They left him and went to Kidor’s wife. They said that Kidor told them to get the money pouches from her, and as a sign that Kidor sent them, to mention that Kidor and his wife had lentils for breakfast. She brought them the money. (The story then continued that Kidor found out what happened and things did not work out well for his wife).[4]

The Talmud demonstrates that the action that the Rabbis took was acceptable. They were allowed to put Kidor in a compromised state in order to retrieve that which he had stolen. It is reasonable that this would be allowed even if the ramifications would be that the thief would miss Birkcas Hamazoune or davening. After he stole, there is a Mitzvah upon him, an obligation to return that which he had stolen.[5] Every second after the theft, that Mitzvah is incumbent upon him to fulfill. Every moment the object is not returned is another violation. Therefore, even if a course of action causes that other Mitzvos would not be performed it is proper to do, because it is imperative to address that Mitzvah which is ongoing and see to it that it is carried out.[6]

Are we motivated to take action strictly because we are wronged or because we seek to help others do what is right?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Hershel D. Becker

[1] Shmuel 2 22:27

[2] Eruvin 65a

[3] Hazinu 32:20

[4] Yoma 83b

[5] Vayikra 5:23

[6] Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein; Veharev Na1 pp. 438-440