“Returning the Stolen Goblet to Joseph”


In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, the confrontation between Joseph and his brethren reaches its peak when Joseph’s steward accuses the brothers of stealing the special cup from which Joseph drinks and with which he regularly divines.

The brothers deny stealing anything from Joseph. In their defense they respond, Genesis 44:8, הֵן כֶּסֶף אֲשֶׁר מָצָאנוּ בְּפִי אַמְתְּחֹתֵינוּ הֱשִׁיבֹנוּ אֵלֶיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וְאֵיךְ נִגְנֹב מִבֵּית אֲדֹנֶיךָ כֶּסֶף אוֹ זָהָב , “Here, look: the money that we found in the mouth of our sacks we have brought back to you from the land of Canaan. How, then, could we have stolen from your master’s house any silver or gold?” The brothers are so certain that no one has stolen anything that they boldly declare, Genesis 44:9, “Anyone among your servants with whom it [the cup] is found shall die, and we also will become slaves to my Lord!”

Rashi states that the formulation of the brothers’ defense is one of the ten קַל וָחוֹמֶרKahl Va’chomers, a priori reasoning lines that are stated in the Torah. The brothers argue that if they were honest enough to return the money that they found in their sacks from the previous visit, why would they now steal additional property which is not theirs?

The rabbis in the Talmud, Baba Kama 113b, comment on this by quoting the rabbinic dictum, “Stealing from a Canaanite [gentile] is forbidden, but one may keep the lost object of the Canaanite.” Therefore, in the case of Joseph, who the brothers assumed was not Jewish, the money that Joseph’s brothers found in their sacks should be considered the lost object of a gentile that need not be returned to the non-Jewish owner. Nevertheless, they returned it, going beyond the letter of the law. How then could they have stolen Joseph’s cup, or anything from a gentile, which is strictly forbidden for a Jew?

Rabbinic literature contains extensive discussions regarding the status in Jewish law of the non-Jew and non-Jewish property. When are non-Jews and their property treated equal to Jews and their property, and when are they not treated equitably?

The Talmud, in Baba Kama 38a, reports that the Roman government once sent two officials to Israel to study and evaluate the Torah. After the Roman representatives had read it three times, they reported that they found the Torah to be primarily truthful, except for the case of a Jew’s ox that gored a gentile’s ox, in which case there would be no liability. In the event the situation were reversed and a gentile’s ox gores a Jew’s ox, compensation would need to be paid.

As the discussion on this case unfolds in the Talmud, the rabbis cite the verse in the Torah, Exodus 21:35, which refers to the case of a man’s ox that gores his neighbor’s ox and dies. They suggest that the conclusion depends on how one views the word “neighbor.” If the word is defined to not include gentiles, then when a Jew’s ox gores an ox belonging to a non-Jew, the Jew should not have to pay damages. However, if the word “neighbor” includes non-Jews, then a Jew would be liable for damages. The Jerusalem Talmud in Baba Kamma 4:3 cites a parallel story in which Rabbi Gamliel forbids the use of an object stolen from a non-Jew, lest it cause G-d’s name to be profaned.

To simplify a complicated issue, it is fair to say that in general, the word “neighbor” in the Bible applies only to Jews and not to non-Jews. Much of Jewish law was designed to promote a lifestyle that would keep Jews separate from gentiles in order to prevent Jews from assimilating and behaving in an idolatrous manner. Sharing meals together was prohibited, as was eating non-Jewish food or drinking non-Jewish wine. Jews were not allowed to conduct business with idolaters before gentile holidays, and were prohibited from engaging in partnerships with idolaters.

Many of the medieval commentators, especially those who resided in Christian countries, worked to reapply the laws with respect to gentiles.

An early authority, Rabbeinu Gershon of Mainz declared that non-Jews who do not reside within the land of Israel can not be considered true idolaters. Therefore, Jews could conduct business with them on the gentile holidays.

Rabbeinu Tam noted that, since the Christian church no longer sacrificed to the idols, doing business with them was now permitted. He went so far as to say that the oaths of Christians were no longer oaths in the name of the idolatrous gods, but rather oaths in the name of the “Maker of Heaven and Earth.”

Later, the 14th century sage, Rabbi Menachem Ha’Meiri, declared that Christians were not idolaters, because he interpreted “idolatry” to mean not in keeping with laws. His conclusion, too, eliminated the legal restrictions against Christians.

Throughout Jewish history, questions arose regarding lost or stolen property of the non-Jews. The general practice is, that Jews who find lost property belonging to a Jew are required to publicize that a lost item had been found in an effort to find the real owner. The argument was that since non-Jews did not expend a similar effort to return the lost property of Jews, Jews were not obligated to make such efforts to return lost items belonging to non-Jews.

Despite this dictum, there were, however, many instances in which Jews went beyond the letter of the law, extending kindnesses to non-Jews despite the lack of a legal requirement to do so. So, for instance, even though the Jewish community refused to accept charity from non-Jews, in order to preserve peace, Jews extended charity and provided burial to the poor of other faiths. (Mishnah in Gittin 5:8).

Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik explains that wherever there is a desecration of G-d’s name it is forbidden to keep a lost object of a non-Jew and it must be returned. The Jerusalem Talmud, Baba Metziah 2:5, reports the famous story of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who bought a donkey from an Ishmaelite and discovered a precious stone tied to its neck and returned it to the Ishmaelite, who praised the G-d of the Hebrews, thus sanctifying G-d’s name. Similarly, when Joseph’s brothers returned the lost money, they did it publicly in order to sanctify G-d’s name.

It is a well-known dictum, that when a human life is in danger, one may violate the Shabbat. But, there is a great debate over whether this principle applies to non-Jewish lives as well. Some great sages, such as the Chofetz Chaim, opposed the practice on the part of Jewish doctors to tend to the non-Jewish sick on Shabbat. However,  Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a most influential modern Halachic authority, objected to the Chofetz Chaim’s conclusion, arguing that if it became known that a Jewish physician refused to treat a non-Jew on Shabbat, while he permitted himself to treat Jews, it would foster much animosity and it would be harmful to the Jewish community.

We see here the evolution of Jewish law, from a time when non-Jewish societies would never come to the aid or benefit of the Jewish people, to a time where there is general reciprocity. Although Jewish reciprocity today is based on the technicality to sanctify G-d’s name, the basic implementation of the law for Jew and gentile is the same: If non-Jews return the lost objects of Jews, then Jews must return the lost objects of non-Jews. If non-Jews return what is stolen, then Jews must return what is stolen. In fact, Jews must always return what is stolen from non-Jews even if the non-Jews do not return what is stolen.

May the positive actions and noble behavior of the Jewish people always serve as a great source of light and enlightenment to all people.

Happy Chanukah!

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah will begin on Tuesday night, December 12, 2017 and continues through Wednesday night, December 20, 2017.

Wishing all a very Happy Chanukah.