As reported in the Orthodox blog Vos Is Neias and subsequently in the Forward, Rabbi Noach Muroff bought a desk on Craigslist, only to discover $98,000 hidden within in a plastic shopping bag. Since the woman who sold him the desk informed him that she herself had assembled the desk, purchased from Staples, Muroff knew that the money belonged to her. And he certainly knew that she had not intended to throw in the cash for the $200 purchase price for the desk. Wanting to teach his children about “emes,” Muroff and his wife and four kids drove back to the seller and returned her the cash. She responded with tremendous gratitude, of course, and a cash reward.
What’s especially cool about this story is that this real life event matches the famous story of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, from the Jerusalem Talmud [Bava Metzia 2.5]:
שמעון בן שטח הוה עסיק בהדא כיתנא אמרין ליה תלמידוי ר’ ארפי מינך ואנן זבנין לך חדא חמר ולית את לעי סוגין. ואזלון זבנון ליה חדא חמר מחד סירקאי ותלי ביה חדא מרגלי. אתון לגביה אמרין ליה מן כדון לית את צריך לעי תובן. אמר לון למה אמרין ליה זבנינן לך חד חמר מחד סירקיי ותלי ביה חדא מרגלי. אמר לון וידע בה מרה אמרין ליה לא א”ל לון איזל חזר. לא כן אמר רב הונא ביבי בר גוזלון בשם רב התיבון קומי רבי אפילו כמאן דמר גזילו של עכו”ם אסור כל עמא מודיי שאבידתו מותרת. מה אתון סברין שמעון בן שטח ברברין הוה. בעי הוה שמעון בן שטח משמע בריך אלההון דיהודאי מאגר כל הדין עלמא.
Shimon ben Shetach was struggling in the flax business. His students said: Rabbi, abandon this business, and let us buy you a donkey, and you will not have to work so hard. They went and bought a donkey from a gentile, which had a jewel hanging on its neck. They returned to him happily, saying, thanks to this good luck you’ll never have to work again! When he learned about the jewel he asked the students whether the gentile had known of it at the time of the sale. When they said no, he ordered them to return the jewel. [The voice of the Talmud’s editor intervenes, and asks:] But why should this be so?! For later, in Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi’s time it was ruled that although stealing from pagans is forbidden, one may keep an item that a pagan has lost. [So why did Shimon ben Shetach not permit himself to benefit from the pagan’s mistake?] Do you think Shimon ben Shetach is a barbarian?! Shimon ben Shetach would prefer to hear the words “Blessed be the God of the Jews” than all the money in the world.
What a great story! That is real honesty – to tell the truth even when it costs you dearly. And moreover, the Talmud itself shows fearless honesty in telling this parable. First of all, the students are portrayed as treacherous. Not every yeshiva student is such a nice boy, it seems. More powerfully, the Talmud characterizes the law of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi’s time as fit for “barbarians.” It might, in fact, be legal for Shimon to keep the jewel. But sometimes the scandal lies not in what is against the law, but what the law permits.
I don’t typically echo the words of Vos Is Neias, but I totally concur that Rabbi Muroff performed a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. As the Gemara (Yoma 86a) says, the mitzvah of ve’ahavta et Adonay Elohekha [loving God with all your heart] means that you should “make God’s name more beloved through your actions.” When people see someone shaped by the Torah who is honest and kind and refined, they say: What a great religion and what a great Torah! How blessed are those who study Torah!
Amen. Yasher Koach to Rabbi Muroff for making God’s name more beloved in the world. Blessed be the God of the Jews!