I have, for a long time, had aspirations of becoming a sofer. Being a long-time ba'al kriah, I've seen a wide variety of sifrei torah and megillos and have come to appreciate the craft and work from a close-up perspective. Alas, time and lack of someone to teach me has kept me from following up on this task.
One prerequisite for being a sofer, however, is being a Yarei Shamayim (one who fears Heaven). This isn't mere religious blather - there is a very good reason for wanting someone who has the fear of God on him. Specifically, there are errors that one can make while writing tefillin or mezuzzos that will invalidate the writing and yet never be noticed by anyone. For example, there is a well-known halacha that tefillin and mezzuzos have to be written k'sidran - in order. If a sofer were to finish making a set of parshiyos and then realize that in the first one he left out a letter - he cannot go back and fix it. Doing so would cause the tefillin to become pasul (unfit). A sofer who was not afraid of Heaven might be tempted to go back and fix it, knowing that the error would never be known by anyone. That's why we want people who are Yarei Shamayim to do safrus - since they know that God will know why the buyer has been putting on pasul tefillin for years.
Which brings us to my experience yesterday.
My oldest son (S1) is currently twelve years old. Since he is getting closer to his Bar Mitzvah, he needs a pair of tefillin to wear. So, yesterday I went to the sofer (actually a safrus shop) in Brooklyn to commission the writing of a set of tefillin. The store clerk showed me a several different parshiyos and, finding one with nice k'sav (script) and in a price range that I can afford, I went ahead and placed the order. I asked him about the sofer who would do the actual writing (he's not employed by the shop but is an independent) and about how long it would take.
We then went to the counter where I was going to place a deposit on the work. I pulled out my credit card (actually, a bank debit card) and gave it to the clerk. He said to me:
"You know that with a card I have to charge you tax?"
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't know the sales tax regulations off the top of my head. But my hunch is that the purchase of religious items in New York City is subject to both state and local sales tax. The fact that the clerk was willing to let me get away without paying sales tax if I paid with cash bothered me very much. If he was the actual sofer, I might have actually walked out the door without making the purchase. Even so, considering the fact that when it comes to safrus we essentially rely on the word of the sofer and safrus dealer (do I *know* that the parshiyos are written k'sidran?) I found it unsettling that there was this public acknowledgement of dishonesty and that it was so casually displayed without any shame or remorse. What should have been a happy occasion left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I've never lied or cheated before - I'm only human and, like every other human, I've had my weak moments. But at least in public I try to maintain the highest standards of honesty; and, I try to make it a point to raise my children to be scrupulously honest. For example, my nine-year-old daughter had been saving up for quite a while to buy a Build-A-Bear. She scraped together all her pennies and silver and bills and finally announced that she had enough. So, I took her to the Build-A-Bear center in Manhattan. She found a bear she liked, had it stuffed and bought an outfit for it. She took it to the "dressing room" and put the outfit on the bear. Then we went to the cash register. The clerk rang up the purchase and quoted me a figure that was suspiciously low. I realized that while she rang up the bear, she did not ring up the outfit that was on the bear. I could have just paid for the bear and gotten the outfit for free. Nonetheless, I said to the clerk "Are you sure that's right?" She thanked me for finding the error (it could have cost her her job, she said). Afterwards, while we were eating lunch, we discussed the incident and, thankfully, she did not say to me "Daddy, why'd you do that - I could have gotten the outfit for free?" Rather, she understood that it would have been stealing and that it would have bothered her every time she looked at her bear.
Again, I understand that people aren't angels and that they are sometimes tempted to do things that are dishonest. But it was the open, flagrant dishonesty (even if it's a "widely accepted" dishonesty) that I found distressing.