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The Jewish Ethicist: Fraught Freebie

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Is it okay to take home soap and shampoo from the hotel room?

Q. When our tour stayed in a hotel, we decided it would be thoughtful if we took some of the soaps and donated them to a homeless shelter. Is this ethical?

A. The first question is whether it is proper to take the soaps or shampoos that hotels provide for guests, or whether you should leave them for the next guest.

If you had to decide this question for yourself, it would be a very complicated question. Some hotels definitely expect guests to use what they need and leave the rest; others resign themselves to the fact that many will be taken. Still others have made lemonade out of the lemons of these de facto freebies and make the samples into promotions for various soap companies; guests are encouraged to keep the samples in the hope that this will create interest in the sponsor.

Fortunately, there is a short cut to the answer: just ask at the desk if it is proper. If the clerk says it's fine, then go ahead and take the samples with you. If the clerk says they should be left, you should adhere to this. If he gives what sounds like grudging permission, you could take them if you have a genuine need -- for instance, if your next stop will be a hostel where you will not find soap and shampoo.

The more instructive part of your question relates to the motive for helping yourself. Your desire to help the needy is certainly laudable, but this motive cannot justify acts that are in themselves ethically questionable. A recurring midrash states "It is better to give a small amount of charity of your own than to cheat and steal and then give charity from what really belongs to others." The midrash goes on to characterize this approach to charity with a rather unsavory simile.

We can understand this midrash if we deepen our understanding of the mitzvah of charity. In Jewish tradition, the institution of charity does not exist primarily to help the needy. The Holy One, blessed be He, provides for all of His creatures according to His judgment; He is able to provide the needs of the poor in any way He sees fit. It is God "Who judges the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, to give him food and clothing" (Deuteronomy 10:18). "You open Your hand, and satisfy the needs of all the living" (Psalms 145:16).

However, the Divine plan calls for human beings to take an active role in the process of providence, and to voluntarily take upon themselves the just distribution of resources. The Talmud relates: "This is the question that [the Roman governor] Turnusrufus asked Rabbi Akiva: If your God loves the poor, why doesn't He provide for them? He said, so that we may be saved through them from the judgment of Gehinnom [hell]." God does provide for the needy, but we are expected to take an active role in this process.

In Jewish tradition, a person is not called upon to accumulate wealth in order to help others; certainly it is improper to obtain wealth in an unethical way in order to help the poor. Rather, we are called upon to take whatever resources we are blessed with from the Holy One, blessed be He, and use them in a responsible way for the performance of His will -- including being generous with our possessions to the needy.

So if the hotel policy is to allow guests to keep the samples, by all means help yourselves and use them for any good purpose you see fit. But if the hotel policy frowns on this practice, your desire to use these items to relieve the suffering of others cannot justify it.

SOURCES: Midrash Rabba on Exodus 22:24, Leviticus 2:1, Leviticus 22:27; Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 10a.

This week's column is dedicated
in honor of

Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski,
an inspiring teacher of Jewish business ethics.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.


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