Monday, May 08, 2006

On The Fear of Heaven and Honesty

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.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

Great post Wolf. I see this kind of stuff alot during tax season. Or, to be specific, I encounter this all year long when friends ask if they can pay for *whatever* on their credit card so they say its a tax write-off. Or, I have relatives that pick up on their neighbors wifi signal to get free internet. They counter this by saying that "since we don't really know how the technology works, its not clear if its stealing or not."

Anonymous said...

I totally disagree. It is the governments responsibility to collect their damn taxes. Why should we help the ganavim!

Anonymous said...

I agree and I get looked at like I'm nuts when I tell them that I'll pay the tax (even though with their attitude, who knows if the money actually gets there, but that already is not my concern).

Anonymous said...

I totally disagree. It is the governments responsibility to collect their damn taxes. Why should we h

They are. Its called a sales tax. Or do you expect a tax collector going home to home asking for the monthly receipts and then collecting the money?

Orthonomics said...

Excellent, excellent post.

Jewboy said...

First Anon- Ever hear of dina malchuso dina?

ADDeRabbi said...

great post.
hh - re: neighbor's wi-fi, the standard assumption is that as long as they don't bother to secure the connection w/ a password (and most do), they don't mind hitchhikers.

Anonymous said...

the standard assumption

Why assume anything? Why can't someone call the provider and find out for sure.

Anonymous said...

And if the store doesn't want to collect it for them- tough luck. Let them do their own dirty work.Bastards! Ganavim!

Anonymous said...

If a case such as the one with your daughter and the Build-A-Bear store comes up with us, my wife and I have gotten into the habit of pointing out the mistake to the cashier and when giving back the extra money, we make it a point to tell them that as orthodox Jews, we are required to be honest. We've been told by Rabbanim that this adds a Kiddush Hashem aspect to the repayment act.

Chaim B.

BrooklynWolf said...

Anonymous (the ones who who think that what the store clerk did was OK),

The simple fact remains that tax evasion is illegal in the state of New York. The store is *required* by state law to collect taxes for all qualifying purchases. Your assertion that the government engages in thievery when it collects taxes is really beside the point - you are still required to pay. You use the services that are paid for by taxes (police, fire, EMS, etc.) and therefore are required to pay.

If you don't like it, you have two options - move out of New York or work to have the tax laws changed. Both of those options are honorable and perfectly legal. But breaking the law is not.

It saddens me to see that there are Jews who actively encourage theivery against the public.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


That's an interesting idea. I may do that the next time I'm in a similar situation.


The Wolf

The Hedyot said...

Hey, they are honest! They're honest about their stealing. Most people would deny it and cover it up. But they come right out and say, we don't care if we rip off the government! Mi k'amcha yisrael! Even when they lie, they tell the truth!

Ezzie said...

This is the third post like this I've read over the last few days, and on the last one I commented about exactly this type of situation.

Excellent post, Wolf. I've had a couple situations where I was debating whether to use a credit card or not, when the owner would say something similar to yours. That always solved the dilemma for me: Credit it would be.

Michael Koplow said...

Wolf, you're absolutely right. Some people wonder how a person who adopted frumkeit, like Jack Abramoff (America's most famous O"J), can be a cheater and all-purpose revolting person. To me, there's no mystery on how this could happen. Our community may not have more cheats than any other, but a lot of the cheats among us are very open about it (at least with other O"Js). The fact that they're so open about it suggests that they're confident that the community will tolerate it, if not support it.

I'm assuming Anonymous I is anonymous because he or she is ashamed or his or her statements.

PsychoToddler said...

You are a great father. What an important lesson for your daughter.

This is the stuff that makes an impression. My daughter (now in college) told me that the most impressive thing she ever saw me do was give money to a meshulach, even after she had heard me discussing my own financial woes.

David Guttmann said...

great post. The first question is Nososo venosato be'emunah!

ifuncused said...

True it hurts to pay taxes on items that are expensive as it is..but if the state is charging it, we need to pay. The company is in agreement with the state to be their go-between. Would it be better if the collectors go to the stores at the end of every month and ask to see inventory. Let's see what you bought, and what was sold. Now do the math and figure out how much is sold "off the books" or "stolen". Why bother cheating?
If you do have an issue with it...go fight city hall!

Orthonomics said...

To the poster above,

That is exactly what happens in a sales tax audit. Some audits are random, some are not.

It is stupid to leave yourself open for possible prosecution if caught, IMO.

Anonymous said...

Why the assumption that sales tax isn't being paid on a cash purchase? Perhaps on a cash purchase, the merchant is willing to cover the tax for you as part of the cost of doing business, but when paying by credit card, he is unable to absorb both the taxes and the fees, so he passes the tax along to you. Halachically, I believe you are required to maintain this assumption, as well.

BrooklynWolf said...


I find it a bit difficult to believe that a merchant would be willing to take an 8.375% hit (the sales tax rate in NYC) to save 3% or so in credit card processing fees.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

I do believe that halachically, if the clerk forgot to charge you for the bear dress, it would not have been stealing on your part not to pay for it. A family member had a similar situation, and when we asked a shaila, we were told we did not have to return the money to the store, as it was their error. I don't think the two situations (cheating on taxes and a clerk making a mistake) can be paralleled.

Dovy said...

SIS: Who'd you ask? RDC? ;)

>If a case such as the one with your daughter and the Build-A-Bear store comes up with us, my wife and I have gotten into the habit of pointing out the mistake to the cashier and when giving back the extra money, we make it a point to tell them that as orthodox Jews, we are required to be honest. We've been told by Rabbanim that this adds a Kiddush Hashem aspect to the repayment act.<

There is such a thing as OVERDOING it, IMHO. My gut reaction is that actions speak far loude than any words do, especially ones that border on self-aggrandizement.