You Don’t Be the Judge
I have an ethical dilemma. I saw a good friend pick up an item in a store and walk out with it without paying. According to Judaism should I say something to my friend about it?
There is an important concept in Judaism known as “judging favorably”. This is a legal concept and is a major factor in deciding the innocent or guilty status of a person who did something that is not clear-cut right or wrong to the witness.
I assume your good friend is really a “good” person and it is extremely unlikely that your friend would steal. Therefore, you should judge your friend favorably, and even think up a scenario that would explain why it was okay to take it. For example, perhaps your friend came to make an exchange and was told by the manager to just swap the items on the shelf — to just put back the size medium and take a size large.
The Talmud relates an amazing story that happened and teaches us the extent of judging a good person favorably:
A man went down from the Upper Gallilee and was hired as a worker for a landowner in the south for three years.
On the day before Yom Kippur the worker came to his boss and said, “Give me my wages so I can support my wife and children.” He replied, “I do not have them.”
He said to him, “Give me produce.” He replied, “I have none.” He said to him, “Give me land.” “I have none.” “Give me animals.” “I have none.” “Give me pillows and covers.” “I have none.”
The worker slung his things over his shoulder and went home frustrated.
After the festivals the employer took the worker’s wages in hand, and along with them loaded three donkeys – one full of food, one with drink, and another with tasty foods – and went to his worker’s house.
After they ate and drank he gave the worker his wages.
He said to him, “When you asked me for your wages and I told you I have no money what did you suspect me of?” “I said perhaps you came across inexpensive merchandise and bought it.”
“And when you said to me to give you animals and I replied that I have none, what did you suspect me of?” “I said perhaps they were hired out.”
“And when you said to me to give you land and I told you I had none, what did you suspect?” “I said perhaps it was leased out to others.”
“And when I told you that I had no produce what did you suspect? “I said perhaps it was not tithed.”
“And when I told you that I had no pillows or blankets what did you suspect? “”I said perhaps he donated all of his property to Heaven.”
He said, “I swear that is what happened. I vowed off all of my property because of my son Hyrkanus who did not go to learn Torah. When I went to my friends in the south they annulled all of my vows. As for you – the same way you judged me favorably, the Omnipresent should judge you favorably.” (Shabbat 127b)
Having said this, I would suggest you decide whether to say something to your friend based on how close your friend is to you. If you feel that your friendship might be jeopardized and your friend will object to your saying something in private, then I would remain quiet. But if you know that your friend will take no offense if you mention what you saw in discrete and non-accusatory manner, I would mention it and see if there perhaps there was some lapse involved – such as your friend had misunderstood from someone that the item was already paid for and it just needed to be picked up.