Returning A Theft From The Public

Question

Benny sells silverware in his High Street shop. One day, a customer comes in to buy a
silver cup. He tells Benny that he is on his way to his hometown, some two hundred miles
away. He pays Benny in cash. After the customer has left the shop, Benny counts the money
again and finds that he was paid too much money. He runs down the street – but the
customer has disappeared without a trace! He puts the money aside. The weeks and the
months pass, but the customer does not contact him. What should he do?


Answer

In Tractate Bovo Kamo (94b) we are informed that one who stole from an individual whom
he knows, must return the stolen article (or its value, if the original article no longer
exists) to his victim. If he does not know from whom he stole, he should set up some
facility for the benefit of the public, such as a public water cistern. Rashi explains
that since this is a facility which everyone makes use of, the victim is also likely to
benefit from it (and thus receive repayment of what was stolen form him). This law is also
to be found in Shulchan Oruch, Choshen Mishpot (366:2). It applies whether
the theft was intentional or unintentional. The Oruch HaShulchan ad loco explains
that since this person is making a serious effort to make amends for what he did, Hashem
will assist him to achieve his goal. He will arrange that the victim, or his inheritors if
he is no longer alive, will derive benefit from the public facility to the value of the
theft. They will then forgive him for what he did. The Sema (321) points out that this
does not represent full repentance, since one can not be certain that the victim will
actually derive the required benefit. Therefore, Beis Din do not force a person to take
such action. If one wishes to clear one’s slate in Heaven, one should take the
initiative (Oruch HaShulchan). Obviously, if one does know who the victim is and
where he lives, even if it is very far away, one can not exempt oneself from repaying the
actual theft by setting up a public facility. There are those who are of the opinion that
if one knows the identity of one’s victim but is unable to locate him, one should
deposit the value of the theft with the local Beis Din until such time as he is found (Meiri,
Chibur HaTeshuva 1:11). If a storeowner finds that he has been serving his
customers using inaccurate weighing scales, all agree that he should use the above method.
He has no idea how much he stole, nor from whom.

The object of setting up a public facility is to allow the victim to derive benefit to
the value of what was unlawfully taken from him. It follows that donating money to a
synagogue or some charity is not going to achieve this goal, unless it is likely that he
frequents this particular synagogue or is a beneficiary of the charity. If one knows that
he lives in a particular location, the public facility should be set up over there. If one
is only aware of his country of residence, one should give the money to a national
organisation within that country. If one has no idea of where the victim comes from, the
money should be given to an international organisation. Do your best to make sure the
victim is repaid by this method! Since you are only repaying a debt, make sure you are not
given honour or derive any other benefit from your making amends (Igros Moshe, Choshen
Mishpot
, No. 88)

THEREFORE, Benny should set up some public facility in the customer’s
hometown. If he is unable to find out in which town he lives, he should donate the money
to an organisation with national coverage. An example would be an organisation that loans
medical equipment. In our case, where he does know who his (unintentional) victim is, some
are of the opinion that he should deposit the sum of money with the local Beis Din.