Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik
by R. Aharon Ziegler
Many segments of the Torah, particularly in Sefer Shemot (chapters 21, 22 and 23), deal with civil laws and the Torah is teaching us, that these civil laws are, in fact, religious laws. The Torah is not only a description of laws between human beings and a moral code, but it also lays out an entire framework of civil relationships.
From a secular civil perspective a one dollar [or one shekel] theft is not regarded as severe as a thousand dollar theft, but in Torah law, Din Pruta K’din Mei’a Mana, a one pruta [smallest coin denomination] stolen is as severe as one hundred. A thief breaks a religious barrier by stealing even one pruta. For stealing an ox and subsequently selling it [or slaughtering it] the thief [when caught] must pay, in addition to replacing the ox, a penalty of five times the value of the animal. But when stealing a small animal, such as a sheep or a goat, he is required to pay only four times the value [Shemot 21:37]. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai explains the rationale in Gemara [Bava Kama 79b] that the Torah reduced the penalty for a sheep because the thief suffered the embarrassment of carrying it on his shoulder as he made his escape. But the ox he can lead out without carrying it. Thus, the Torah is teaching us, if the embarrassment of even a thief evokes G-d’s pity, how much more so should we be concerned with the feeling of innocent people. Even a thief becomes the object of a Divine law.
The mitzvah of Hashavat Aveida [returning lost objects] is mentioned in parashat Ki Teitzei [Devarim 22:1-4]. Although the Torah seems to be saying that only to a Jewish brethren must we return a lost object, based on the word “Achicha,” Rav Soloveitchik dismissed this categorically. He said that what the Torah means is that returning an object to a Jew is a fulfillment of Hashavat Aveida, but returning it to a non-Jew is a fulfillment of Kiddush HaShem, which is one of the highest and loftiest of all mitzvot. The Rav insisted with uncompromising vigor that this is not merely a question of Eiva, a concern for creating displeasure with the Gentiles and perhaps evoking hostilities against the Jews, but returning a Gentile’s lost object is a fulfillment of the most precious mitzvah in the Torah, namely, Kiddush HaShem.