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The Jewish Ethicist: Salad-Bar Scandal

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

Should I tell a clerk about a petty shoplifter?

Q. I saw someone at the grocery store salad bar eating as much as she was taking. Should I mention this to a security guard?

A. This is a good time to review the criteria for talking about someone's faults or misdeeds. According to the classic work Chafetz Chaim by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen of Radin, there are basically five guidelines. Only if all five are met may we speak negatively of someone. As an aid to memory, we can arrange them according to the letters of the alphabet:

ACCURACY – it is forbidden to exaggerate or embellish

BENEFIT – revelation must be the only way to way to obtain some constructive benefit.

CERTAINTY – we must be sure the information is reliable.

DESIRE – the teller's intention must be constructive, not vindictive.

EQUITY – the revelation must not cause undeserved damage to the subject. It's not equitable to protect one person at the expense of another.

Let's see how these apply to your question.

The accuracy and certainty considerations are simple to apply. You just need to make sure that you limit any report to what you observe, without introducing inferences or judgments.

The desire criterion compels you to scrutinize your motivation. Do you want to protect the store from loss, or deter this shopper from continuing her misbehavior? If so, the criterion is fulfilled. But if you have a vindictive desire to see this individual get her comeuppance, you should hold your tongue until you can convince yourself that your motives are pure.

The equity criterion requires us to consider the consequences of reporting to the shoplifter. If the store management is likely to consider your report a basis for investigation rather than an absolute proof of wrongdoing, and to take a measured and justified response such as requesting payment for anything eaten, then the consequence of your reporting would be equitable. But if you are afraid that the store would “throw the book” at your fellow shopper for her relatively minor infraction, then the best thing is to refrain.

The most problematic consideration in the case you mention is undoubtedly “benefit.” Consider the likely outcome of reporting. Will the store be able to recover its loss? Will the shopper be deterred from snacking in the future? Is there a chance of having an embarrassing altercation?

In all probability, you will conclude that it is much more advantageous to give this individual a gentle reminder. Something like, “How much are you allowed to taste without paying?” is completely non-judgmental yet gets the message across. Even asking, “How is the salad?” may be enough to remind the person that their actions are being observed, though you must say this in a way that doesn't express condoning the action.

There is always the chance that this won't have any impact. (Maybe the shopper will even offer you a few morsels!) If so, you still have the option of turning to the store management. So the benefit criterion in your case seems to favor turning directly to the shopper before mentioning anything to the store. This has the additional advantage that you have fulfilled the Torah commandment of giving gentle reproof: “Surely reprove your fellow, and don't bear sin towards him” (Lev. 19:17).

In your case, someone is taking something relatively inexpensive in an open way. The likelihood that a private comment will be helpful is great. But the case would be different if someone was surreptitiously shoplifting something of significant value. In that case it is less likely that a private comment will be of help; at most the person will wait until you move along to continue his crime. In addition, such a person is more likely to be dangerous. Furthermore, if you report it, the store will be saved from significant loss – unlike the case with already-eaten salad, which has a small value which the store will probably never recoup. Now the scales would probably be tipped in favor of reporting.

If you do report someone to store management, the “equity” and “certainty” criteria are best fulfilled if you don't give too many details. Just mention to a clerk or security person, “I think you should keep an eye on the necktie section.”

The criteria for mentioning someone's misdeeds are always the same, yet their application differs greatly from case to case. In the salad bar situation, it is likely that turning to store management would not be the most effective way of dealing with the situation.

Chafetz Chaim section I:10, II:10.

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

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