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The Jewish Ethicist: Coffee Conundrum

The Jewish Ethicist: Coffee Conundrum

Can I borrow something small without permission?


A. Last week the office ran out of coffee. One coworker has a private jar, but he was nowhere to be found. Can I borrow a spoonful?

Q. This is a common issue, and many people see nothing wrong with "borrowing" from a friend in this way. In order to get to the bottom of this issue, we have to start from the proper foundations. The Talmud tells us a basic principle of ownership: "Borrowing without knowledge [of the owner] is considered stealing." (1)

The basis for this pronouncement is clear. Whether something is considered stealing or borrowing doesn't depend on the opinion of the taker; he has in any case no rights in the object. It can only depend on the opinion of the owner. Since the owner doesn't know of the "borrowing", the borrower's subjective intention to return the object has no power to change the legal status of the taking.

However, there can be cases where it is so clear that the person wouldn't mind that it can just be assumed. One example is a mitzvah object. In the case where borrowing would help a person do a mitzvah (religious commandment), and where the object is not harmed at all, our sages say, "A person agrees to have his property used for a mitzvah". (2) However, even this principle does not apply if there is a reasonable chance that damage will come to the object, for example borrowing a book which may become torn. (2)

Another example is an object whose whole purpose is to serve strangers. If you invite someone into your house, the guest generally doesn't need to ask permission to sit on the couch – that's what it's there for. (3)

At the same time, the rabbis of the Talmud were well aware of the danger of rationalization. It is just too easy to convince yourself that the owner surely doesn't mind. This tendency can be an expression of an exaggerated sense of entitlement which expresses itself in even worse ways. Consider the following story form the Talmud:

A silver cup was stolen from a boarder of [the sage] Mar Zutra Chasida. He saw a certain student who washed his hands and then dried them on his fellow's cloak. He exclaimed, This must be the person, see how he has no regard for his fellow's property! He took him aside and he confessed.(4)

I think we should err particularly on the side of caution when we are talking about a consumable product like coffee. When you borrow an object, the object is around to remind you that you have to return it. But when you take a spoonful of coffee, once you drink it is too easy to forget you ever borrowed it. In no time, all the coffee is gone. Now it is your friend who is stuck without coffee, but he doesn't have a friend to borrow from. If you don't even intend to return it the situation is even worse. A jar seems like a lot, but a private jar can go very quickly if everybody tells himself, "It's only one spoonful."

People are generally good-hearted, and are happy to help others if there is no harm to them. But people are equally aware that borrowing is a very slippery slope, and it is all too easy to forget to return something or to use it carelessly. So pass this time, and when you do see your friend ask him if he minds if you help yourself next time.


SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 41a, Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 359:5. (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 29b (3) Tur and Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 381. (4) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 24a

November 14, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Alan Kerman, November 20, 2009 4:48 AM

correction to previous comment part 2

Rabbi Meir: (continued) In the present case, if there is a particular reason for others not to take the coffee, it seems that the owner should take responsibility for preventing such a unauthorized loan. From the wording of the inquiry, that the coworker has a "private jar", it seems that the coworker has kept the coffee out of public view, say inside a desk drawer, so that he would have every expectation that his privacy would be respected, and thus has properly taken this responsibility. If the coffee jar were in public view, or even, if not, there is a potentially dangerous ingredient, the owner should have placed a discreet notice on the container, requesting that others not consume this coffee, for whatever the reason. Certainly this is the case if there is a potentially dangerous ingredient, as a safety measure, regardless of the storage location. On the other hand, for the owner to place this temptation without any ownership notice in plain sight of an individual who, although ethical in general, might err in taking the coffee on impulse without thinking carefully, would constitute placing a stumbling block before the blind. So the analogy to the lens swallower is not exact, and I was mistaken in alluding to it. I acknowledge that your analysis of the situation, on purely ethical grounds, was more accurate.

(5) Anonymous, November 20, 2009 4:45 AM

correction to previous comment part 1

Rabbi Meir: In my previous comment I discussed potential practical problems involved in borrowing coffee without permission, either that this was an unusual variety of coffee, or the possibility that it contains a potentially dangerous unknown ingredient. I now acknowledge that injecting the possibility of danger to health into this discussion is potentially misleading. Ethical dilemmas should never be resolved by appealing to such strictly utilitarian justification. To do so would imply that the action would be acceptable if one could be certain that no practical difficulties would ensue, which is, of course, simply wrong. Theft is theft, and invasion of the privacy of others is unacceptable, regardless of whether or not there is damage that is immediately observable to the thief. This is the fundamental point in this situation; my points are logical distractions. Mea culpa. The web page to which I referred in my comment states that Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Jerusalem holds that the contact lens swallower is not responsible for payment for the swallowed lenses, despite the fact that a person is responsible for any damage he causes, even if he did so unintentionally. He finds that the lens owner had responsibility for the loss, because of his carelessness in storing the lenses.

(4) Donna, November 20, 2009 1:17 AM

My two cents' worth

It isn't considered "stealing" if the borrower has permission. Like the rabbi says, pass this time and ask if it's OK to take some the next time. On a related note, I am amused by those who ask me, "Can I steal a (fill in the blank with the small item of your choosing)? I reply, "It's not 'stealing' if you ask me and I say 'Yes' ".

(3) ruth housman, November 17, 2009 5:13 PM

action AND intent

I think it's important to make ethical considerations when we take something belonging to another, that involves, of course, their feelings, known or, unknown. I honestly believe that it's the angst in making and reviewing such decisions prior to taking an action that is what we're meant to do, because ethics and the decisions we make so often lie in the gray area, meaning not black, nor white, as all these considerations do imply, that do try, to hair split on these issues, to come up with guidelines. The best guide line I believe, is one's heart, and one's power of empathy. We can't really make a terrible mistake if we live with love, meaning caring deeply for one another. Sometimes yes, we may take that last bagel, and feel a tad guilty about it, but it's the relationship that counts, and that's about LOVE.

(2) Alan Kerman, November 17, 2009 2:09 AM

drinking others' coffee revision 1

This question is reminiscent of a discussion about accidentally swallowed contact lenses, as seen on the web page, not to mention various children's stories about accidentally swallowing a magic potion. In the present case, there may be a particular reason that the coworker has a private stock, which makes it inappropriate for others to consume this supply. Perhaps this person has a particular taste for an exotic variety of coffee, or is required to consume this particular variety for a health reason, and in either case there is special difficulty or cost involved in obtaining this supply. It is also possible that the coworker has added to his private supply a particular ingredient for medical reasons that makes it dangerous for others to consume this supply. The moral is the same as in the case of the swallowed lenses: "Think before you drink".

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