It's Not Quite That Simple

For the week ending 14 November 2015 / 2 Kislev 5776

Bus Fair

by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Greenblatt
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Penny Pincher is in general a good sort of lady — friendly to all, always willing to lend a helping hand and scrupulous in her observance of most mitzvot. Every person has his foibles, however, and Penny’s main shortcoming is her miserly nature. She is always trying to save a buck, and unfortunately she is sometimes even prepared to sacrifice some of her morals on the altar of financial gain. It takes Penny 20 minutes to walk to work every day. The bus would get her there in five, but it costs $2.50. In Penny’s city the bus network runs on the honor system. Occasionally a conductor boards to check tickets, but most of the time, the bus company is happy to trust that people will pay their fares. Penny decides that this a perfect opportunity to save 15 minutes each way. That’s an extra half-an-hour every day! And, by not paying, she could also avoid paying more than $1,000 a year in bus fare. That is, ahem, a pretty penny! As is often the case when people do something which they know deep down is wrong, she thinks long and hard to rationalize her actions.

The Gemara discusses the case of a squatter on someone else’s property. If the property is not generally used or rented out, there is a difference of opinion as to whether the squatter is liable to pay. The squatter may claim, “In what way have I deprived you of anything? You haven’t lost anything; what am I paying you for?!” On the other hand, the property owner may counter, “You used my property and derived benefit from it! Pay for that!” Jewish legal authorities agree that the law follows the opinion that there is no obligation to pay. Payment for something taken is a restitution of loss caused to an owner, and in this case no loss has actually been incurred. The squatter has indeed benefitted, but the owner has not lost out. In such cases, where one party benefits without causing loss to another party, there is nothing to pay back, as nothing was taken from the owner. And it’s the same with taking the bus, Penny reasons. I wouldn’t otherwise need to pay since I’d be walking if I weren’t on the bus, and I’ll be sure only to get on when the bus is empty so I won’t be taking up any space which someone else could have taken. I’m not actually depriving the bus company of anything. (Even though Penny’s extra weight adds to the bus company’s fuel costs, let’s assume that that amount is negligible.)

But, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now … it’s not quite that simple!

Penny, doubtless blinded by her avaricious tendencies, has overlooked a few crucial things. Even though in some cases, like the one of the squatter above, there is no obligation to pay, that is only post facto. There is no debate regarding the permissibility of squatting on another’s property in the first place — it is not allowed. The fact that after the fact there is nothing to charge the squatter, for the technical reason that there is nothing to pay back, does not mean that he was within his rights to squat in the first place! So even if we will agree that Penny will not have to pay the bus company, ahem, a penny, she is still forbidden to ride the bus without paying.

Furthermore, Tosefot explains that in a case where it is made absolutely clear by the owner that no one is permitted on his property, there is also no debate. The property is no longer considered in the sub-set of properties which are usually not rented out. The owner has made it clear that he will only countenance use of the property for payment — i.e. it is now a rental property. Everyone agrees that in such a case, the full value of any benefit derived by the squatter must be paid. Similarly then, assuming that the bus company makes it clear somewhere that tickets must be bought or that free-riders will be prosecuted or something to that effect, it is arguable that Penny would have to pay, even post facto.

Apart from all this, there is another very pressing issue. One of the more serious prohibitions in Judaism is chillul Hashem, “desecration of G-d’s name”. Whether we like it or not, Jews (especially visibly Jewish Jews, but all Jews) are ambassadors of G-d. We are His people and we are supposed to reflect a high standard of morality and ethics. Even if something is technically permissible (which, please note, it is not in Penny’s case), a Jew always has to take into account the way he is perceived by those around him. Admittedly, Penny is not the most identifiably Jewish of names, but it is certainly possible that someone will recognize Penny or be able to tell by other means that she is Jewish. And people are often very quick to generalize from one Jew’s actions. Just imagine the headline: “Religious Jew Cheats Bus Company”.

Unfortunately, as we have seen so many times in our history, there have always been those who will find any excuse to hate us. Of course, not every Jew-hater can be deterred from his parochialism; there are those who are prepared to give us a shot. At least for them, our aim should be to live lives beyond reproach, so that those who know us hold Jews in high esteem. Let’s hope that the, ahem, penny finally drops for Ms. Pincher and those like her who try to cut moral corners. If Penny would decide to live her life trying her best to do what is right, she will see that opportunities to make a good name for herself and for her people are, ahem, a “pretty penny.”

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