In the Jewish Ethics class I’m taking, this week we discussed theft. In particular, we discussed Talmudic thought on, for example, inviting someone to dinner when you know they won’t accept. This was presented as a theft of the mind, since the offer wasn’t sincere.
The class got me thinking about a recent incident in the small, locally-owned grocery store where I frequently shop. I asked the man at the deli counter for a half a pound of the beef salami.
I don’t usually pay close attention to these things, but the man seemed to be having some difficulty entering the correct code into the scale, so I noticed the price per pound he entered. I glanced from the scale down to the sign on the salami, and it appeared he had charged me about $2 less per pound than the price on the sign.
As he wrapped the salami, I pondered whether or not I should say something. If I said nothing, I could claim I wasn’t being dishonest, because it’s not my fault he charged me the wrong price. Plus, half a pound at a price $2 per pound too low is only about a dollar. However, I knew that if I didn’t say something, I’d feel guilty, and I would feel bad every time I contemplated eating any of the salami.
So when he handed me the package, I checked the price per pound on the label and said, “Excuse me, but I think you charged me less than the marked price.” He took a look at the label, peered at the sign, and started to take the package back. Then he hesitated, and said, “You buy this all the time. I think you deserve a discount.”
Now, if he were the owner of the store, it would certainly be within his perogative to give me a discount. However, as an employee, did he have this right? If not, taking the salami at the lower price might still be considered to be stealing. On the other hand, his decision might be considered good customer service. He made a mistake, it was a small one, so in the pursuit of good customer relations, he let the mistake stand.
I could easily picture the store manager and/or owner standing behind such a decision, so I went ahead and took the salami, still marked at the lower price. But I still wonder whether I should have insisted that he charge me the correct price.
This story led me to recall an incident that happened in my college days. I frequently used to stop by a donut shop to purchase a glazed confection to eat on my way to class in the morning. The fellow behind the counter used to flirt with me a little, which was kind of fun.
That is, it was fun until one day when he gave me a significant look as he handed me my change and the donut bag. As I strolled down the street, I opened the bag to discover it contained not one, but two donuts. The fellow had stolen a donut and given it to me.
The theft made me feel very uncomfortable. I didn’t want the guy stealing donuts – or anything else – to give me. I didn’t want to get him in trouble by going back and returning it. If, the next time I went in, I told him I didn’t want him to give me any more free stuff, he might get in trouble, or even if nobody else overheard, he might get mad at me.
What I did instead is I never set foot in that donut shop again. Ultimately, that guy behind the counter stole more than one donut from the store owners. In addition, he stole from them all of my future business, as well.