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Designer Theft

Yisrael Rutman

The Sages of the Talmud knew all about the temptation to steal. Most people, they said, in one way or another, succumb to it. But even those insightful scholars may never have dreamed of the extent people would go to in the most affluent society in history.

According to a recent report in The New York Times, the trendiest restaurants in America are constant targets of theft. Reporter Donna Paul interviewed dozens of restaurateurs and discovered that "from $3 water glasses to $1,200 silver ice buckets, from vintage photographs hanging on the walls to scented candles burning in the bathrooms, if it isn't nailed down, diners have walked off with it." In one Manhattan eatery, a designer sconce was ripped from the wall in the men's room during the dinner service.

People who are able to spend hundreds of dollars on a unique dining experience are obviously not poor. What is it, then, that emboldens some of them to take that enticing Peugeot pepper mill or a sample of the darling Frette linens? Well, as one customer said, "I rationalized that the restaurant probably had 200 of them," and so she swiped a little mother-of-pearl caviar spoon.

Of course, this line of thinking ultimately empties out the proprietor's inventory, not to mention his faith in humanity. It leads to the daunting experience of the owners of one restaurant who hand-carried thousands of pieces of silverware from Italy and France, only to have all of them stolen over the years. Now they use second-rate imitations.

The service industry is taking counter-measures: the installation of surveillance cameras, the training of staff in professional vigilance, and, last but not least, bolting and screwing down anything of value aside from food and flatware.

Of course, all of this only serves at best to manage the problem, but does not solve it. Is there no way to teach people that stealing, in whatever form and for whatever reason, is wrong?

In a society whose traditional moral restraints have taken a back seat to the pursuit of material possessions, it is difficult to see how. Jewish tradition, however, does offer a solution: Lo Tignov. Thou Shalt Not Steal.

Only recognition of a God-given law that allows for no rationalizations or loopholes can ultimately curb the natural human tendency to covet what belongs to others. No system can work as effectively as the internal security system of knowing that we live under the surveillance of the Master of the Universe.

But how is such a recognition inculcated? Only by constant emphasis. The Torah's prohibition against theft is not only engraved on synagogue walls and read aloud each year from the Torah, it is engraved on Jewish hearts through education and example.

In a traditional Jewish educational system, the first exposure of a child to Talmud is the chapter of "These are the lost items.," which concerns itself with the imperative to restore lost property to its rightful owner. Anyone imbued from childhood with the concept that God wishes that he locate a wallet's owner will not likely consider shoplifting an acceptable enterprise.

Meticulous honesty has always been an essential Jewish ideal. Abraham proclaimed that "I took nothing from a thread unto a shoelace" from the king of Sodom. Moses testified that he borrowed not even a donkey from the public trust. Jacob labored for his father-in-law Laban, weathering the chill of night and the heat of day to earn his honest wages, despite Laban's having cheated his son-in-law "a hundred times over." Jacob could have rationalized, but he didn't. As King David wrote, "Who can ascend the holy mountain? He whose hands are clean [of theft]."

The only real solution to the breakdown of respect for the property of others may not be fashionable in these "God-neutral" times. But the experience of thousands of years have proven its efficacy. The only real way to combat designer theft is with Designer obedience.


AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Yisrael Rutman lives in Israel, where he teaches Jewish Studies, edits E-geress.org and writes for various publications.


 






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