“Theft” In The Synagogue?  

Question

As Feivish reflects on the past year, he
shudders at the memory of the incident. On the seventh day of Pesach, the aliyos
(to be called up to the reading of the Torah) were being auctioned.
Feivish so much wanted to be called to the shiroh (Song of Moses,
which is read on this day). However, Zanvil outbid him, offering $500.
When Zanvil was called, Feivish quickly ran up and recited the blessings.
Feivish had later begged Zanvil’s forgiveness for his behavior, which
he graciously granted, but neither of them had paid the promised $500 to
the shul (synagogue). Does Zanvil have to pay the promised sum, or
perhaps Feivish is liable since he stole what Zanvil had bought?


Answer

In Tractate Chullin (87a), the gemoro
relates how Reuven slaughtered a bird and was about to cover its blood (as
required by the Torah – see Vayikro 17:13) when Shimon came along
and covered it instead of him. Rabbon Gamliel made the “mitzvah
snatcher” pay ten gold pieces in compensation to the slaughterer, since
he deprived him of reciting the blessing over covering the blood. The Rosh
(No.8) adds that if the slaughterer had heard the blessing and had the
opportunity to answer “omein” (even if he did not actually
answer), he would not have been entitled to any compensation. The reason
is that “one who answers ‘omein’ receives a greater reward
than the person who makes the blessing” – see Tractate Berochos
58b. Thus, he has not incurred any loss, since he derived greater “benefit”
from the mitzvah than if he would have performed it himself. The Rosh
continues by discussing what the law would be if one person was called to
the reading of the Torah and another person went up instead. No
compensation is payable, he concludes. All those present in shul are
obligated to read from the Torah. The reason why the gabbai is left
to decide who is actually called on each occasion is in order to avoid
disputes arising when all clamor for a turn to read. Therefore, if one
who is not called to the Torah recites the blessing, he is not “stealing”
from the one who was called. No individual can acquire the right to read,
nor can the gabbai confer this right upon him. When the gabbai
calls out this person’s name he is just saying, “For the sake of good
order, take a turn to read now.” Even when aliyos are auctioned,
whoever makes the winning bid has only put in a successful bid to be honored, which falls short of “owning” the aliyah. If the
person who was really called by the gabbai answered “omein
to the snatcher’s blessing, he would not be entitled to compensation
even if he did own the aliyah. The same law would apply if the gabbai
was at fault for calling the wrong person to the Torah. He too has not
stolen anything from the successful bidder.

[It is forbidden to conduct business transactions on
Shabbos or Yom Tov. Since no real sale takes place when aliyos are
auctioned, as described above, there should not be any halachic problem in
conducting such a sale. Thus, when the Mishneh B’rurah (306, Note
33) quotes an opinion that such a practice is forbidden since it
constitutes business, we must conclude that the objection is that it looks
like a business transaction.]

We can therefore conclude that Feivish has no
obligation to pay the sum Zanvil promised to the shul. He did not promise
to pay any money in order to be honored with an aliyah. According
to the above, he did not actually steal Zanvil’s aliyah
either. Zanvil obviously does not have to pay the sum he promised, since
his offering was conditional on being honored with the requested aliyah.
Nevertheless, Feivish is the biggest loser. He sinned against his
fellow-man. He lost control of himself and caused another Jew acute
embarrassment.