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The Jewish Ethicist - Eat Now, Pay Later

The Jewish Ethicist - Eat Now, Pay Later

Can I open kids' treats in the supermarket and pay at checkout?


Q.When I take children to the market I often give them a treat before I pay to keep them quiet. Is this proper?

A. The case of taking someone's property with the intention of paying afterwards is discussed in two main Talmudic passages. Let us see how the nuances of these passages can shed light on your dilemma.

In a seemingly similar situation, the Talmud asks if it is possible to feed one's animals from a stranger's field with the intention of paying afterwards. The conclusion is that this is forbidden. A Scriptural allusion is found in the verse: "If the wicked will return his theft, he has gone in the laws of life" (Ezek, 33:15). The future tense is interpreted literally: if he WILL return his theft, he is still called wicked (at the time of the theft itself). (1) The evident justification for this prohibition is that the owner may not find this arrangement advantageous. He may not be interested in getting payment, preferring instead the object. Also, a future promise of payment is not very attractive.

Based on this rationale, the distinguished early authority Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel writes that if payment is ready and the owner is clearly willing to sell it is permissible, "for instance, an object which is for sale." (2)

From this point of view there is no objection to your behavior. The merchandise you take is clearly intended for sale, and your don't plan to pay for it at some unspecified future time but rather immediately as you leave the store -- exactly as you would have had you bought without opening. For this reason many stores don't have any objection to occasional cases of "eat now pay later".

However, there is another relevant consideration which we learn from a different passage in the Talmud. The Torah commands "Don't steal" (Leviticus 19:11.) The Talmud infers from the categorical nature of this commandment that stealing is forbidden under all circumstances. Stealing is prohibited even if the intention is to return the stolen object and pay the requisite fine, which would seem to provide an unambiguous benefit for the "victim". (3) Maimonides explains that this is "lest he become accustomed" (4). This is a common theme in Jewish sources: taking advantage of seeming loopholes in prohibitions is often prohibited since this tends to weaken our natural aversion to wrongdoing. By the time a person steals a few times as a practical joke and a few more times as a way of "rewarding" the victim with the payment of the fine, stealing doesn't seem to him a very serious transgression, and it will be easy to find additional justifications and rationalizations.

I think this consideration is definitely valid in the case of buying from a supermarket. The items are not neatly arranged and easily observable, and a customer can easily slide down the slippery slope into an "easy-come, easy-go" attitude towards paying – not to mention the mess. Therefore, even in supermarkets which do not object when you eat first and pay later, I think that this should be done only when there is a compelling reason, for instance the example you give of keeping young children quiet. And of course the wrapping must be scrupulously preserved so that the cashier can easily scan the item without getting a hand full of gook and drool.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma 60b (2) Rosh commentary. (3) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 61b (4) Maimonides' Code, Geneiva 1:2.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

September 8, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) Devorah Malka, June 22, 2011 1:55 AM


Seems like a lot of people are assuming that this is the question of a "bad" parent - giving in to whining/tantrum by handing the kid a sugary treat. Also, that the kid will think you didn't pay for it. How about this scenario - shopping is inherently BORING for kids, especially if they know you won't give in to demands. So you make a practice to let them pick out a snack to keep them busy while you do the shopping (something brought from home isn't exciting enough to keep their attention). You can go to customer service, pay, and get a paid sticker (incidentally, if you keep small change on you and let the kids pay themselves, they start learning about the value of money and treating the store employees with respect). But often, the line is super long, or there is not even anyone there. Don't bother with a register, cuz they don't usually have the paid stickers. At the end of the shopping trip, if you paid for the snack first or not, your kid is still going to notice that you are standing in line to pay. If you take an extra second to explain what you are doing and why, they won't get any wrong messages.

(8) Cynthia Montero, May 13, 2008 9:47 AM

Other Considerations

Dear Rabbi,

This is a response regarding your advice to the parent who asked about "Eat Now, Pay Later" in order to keep his/her young children quiet during their time at the supermarket. I can understand the need to keep the children calm and quiet during a trip the the supermarket, having raised 7 children. However, wouldn''t it just be better overall if the parent arranged to bring something from home? A healthy snack such as carrots or dried cereal would be a much better snack for the children than some sticky candy that is easily unwrapped and messy to keep them quiet.

This would also discourage the children from becoming loud and unruly in the supermarket as a manipulation to get what they''re wanting. It has been my experience that children are much smarter than we often give them credit for and will use whatever is at their disposal to get their way. It''s just plain human nature.

Another consideration this parent should take into account is that the child in question may not realize that the parent has in fact paid for the item, along with their other purchases, when leaving the store. The child may perceive that the item was taken without compensation being rendered. This could cause the child to think that the parent has stolen the item and to think that stealing is okay in some circumstances. It is important to avoid even the illusion of transgression whenever possible, is it not? By having the child wait for the item until after payment is made, the child learns patience and the importance of always paying for things.

And of course, there is always the possibility that the item may be missed for whatever reason during the checkout process and therefore not be paid for at all.

Cynthia Montero

(7) Natalie Kehr, October 20, 2007 1:04 AM

A terrible way to bring up children

The health tyrants are probably up in arms at the thought that children are being bribed with sugar, but a more important point is that this mother is rewarding bad behaviour. Surely treats should only be given as a reward after the child has behaved perfectly.

This mother may have problems arranging a supermarket visit where her child behaves perfectly. She may have to start by going at a quiet time and buying only one item so that they are out of the store before the brat has time to kick up a fuss, but if she persists she will eventually be able to do a full shop accompanied by well behaved children.

On the other hand I shop in English supermarkets which appear to regard it as a point of honour to have long queues at the checkouts. I would be lenient towards anyone who has stood in line for 10 minutes and then opens a packet and starts nibbling.

(6) Abel Perez, September 11, 2007 5:15 PM

Greatly apreciated

This web corner has become special for me to visit, coming by, means getting something always. Thanks to HIM, and to You.

(5) Ruth Housman, September 11, 2007 2:31 PM

eat now pay later

I personally would feel uncomfortable taking items, eating them as I go, and saving the wrappers for later payment at the end of my shopping trip. Somehow it "feels wrong" to me. I can, however, imagine scenarios with children and that I would find this permissible in certain extenuating circumstances, but always teaching the child how important it is to save the wrappers and to be very careful about doing this. Why? Because as pointed out it is so easy to forget. It's not a good practice and other people might very well wonder what's going on. I think if we all munched our way through a store the management would be very uncomfortable. I guess this is my test: how would I feel if I were running a store and this continued to happen, even with the best of intentions.

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