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The Jewish Ethicist: Tainted Money

The Jewish Ethicist: Tainted Money

Can a bank accept deposits from criminals?


Q. You recently wrote that buying stolen merchandise is forbidden because it enables crime. Does the same apply to accepting bank deposits from criminal activities?

A. In a recent column, we pointed out that Jewish law forbids buying stolen merchandise. We quoted Maimonides who wrote: " For if he can't find anyone to buy, he won't steal." (1)

You correctly point out that a similar principle applies to laundering the proceeds of illegal activity. Whether the criminal activity is theft or some illegal form of commerce such as the drug trade, the perpetrators can safely enjoy their ill-gotten gain only if they have a safe place to stash it. So from that point of view, accepting the money should be equally forbidden. On the other hand, there is a difference between an object which is itself actually stolen and money which is in itself neutral but whose source was some illegal activity.

The Talmud teaches:

The rabbis taught: It is forbidden to accept deposits from women, slaves and

children. If [despite the prohibition] he did accept from a woman, he should return it

to her. If she died, he should return it to her husband. (2)

This law relates to a suspicious deposit. At the time of the Talmud, men were in most cases in charge of the family finances; a woman would have little reason to make a deposit with a stranger. Slaves did not own property at all. Due to this suspicion, it is forbidden to take the deposit. The Talmudic commentator Rashbam gives an explanation reminiscent of that of Maimonides regarding stolen objects:

It is forbidden to aid transgressors. And if he doesn't accept from them, they will

return [the objects] from wherever they stole them from.

The emphasis is on the material help the deposit makes to enabling the theft.

In a similar vein, Maimonides rules:

People who are presumed thieves, and all of their money is presumed stolen because their livelihood is theft, like tax farmers and bandits, it is forbidden to benefit from them, because there is a presumption that their work is stolen. And it is forbidden [even] to change money from their box, because it is all presumed stolen. (3)

At the strict legal level, there is still a difference between the actual stolen money and

money that is the proceeds from transgression. The distance from the transgression in this case is greater, and the sources above do not demonstrate that there is a specific legal prohibition on accepting deposits which are suspected to be the proceeds of wrongdoing.

However, we do see that Jewish law recognizes the concept of tainted money and the

problem of abetting wrongdoing. The strict money-laundering laws that have been passed in recent years are in the spirit of the laws we have just discussed, and in any specific case where accepting the money is a substantive aid to wrongdoing it would be forbidden.

SOURCES: (1) Maimonides' Code Laws of Theft 5:1. (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 51b (3) Maimonides' Code, Laws of Lost and Stolen Objects 5:9

December 5, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) R. Halevy, December 13, 2010 11:46 AM

Jewish Ethics is 100% consistent with Austrian Economics and Libertarian Free Market Concepts

@ R. Meir, Thanks for your brief and objective response to this question. @ Larry, I've been reading lots on Austrian Economics, mainly the writings of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard (please check, and it's quite clear for me that the only ethically consistent banking practice would be a system based on gold standard, zero fractional reserve and no central bank. In summary, to adopt the philosophy of rejecting all types of forceful exchange and government intervention, and accepting only voluntary exchange between acting persons. These ideas should be widely spread to help our Jewish brothers understand that all Parnassah comes from Heaven and any material gains dishonestly earned must ultimately be returned to the wronged party - be it now or in a subsequent reincarnation of the involved souls.

(4) Larry, December 10, 2010 8:44 PM

All Banking and wealth tax is also criminal

Banks are lending out money that does not belong to them and garnering intrest on this stolen wealth. Legitimate banking charges a fee for keeping a person's wealth with on demand accees. To earn interest the customer lends their asset for a period of time to the bank (like a CD) without on demand access. Today's banks use Fractional Banking where Banks lend out many times more than their reserves of assets. It is a fraud and the interest they earn is theft. Worse, todays banks have no real assets or reserves of precious metals that have some value. Today's bank "reserves" are debts such as Treasury bonds from a central bank. Very little is from actual savings of assets. Income, property and other direct wealth taxation is theft of the asset, the life and liberty invested in creating the weatlh and the opportunity to use that asset for charity or creating work for another. I submit that interest from today's banks and benefiting in any way from Government taxation is also forbidden. To fix the systen see

(3) judy, December 8, 2010 8:40 AM


Integrity is important. People who don't have integrity within them are lacking internal substance. A good conscience does help sleep at night.

(2) SusanE, December 7, 2010 7:50 PM

Rabbi, looks like no one wants to comment on this subject.

So, Any wrongdoing anywhere is easy to uncover. Just follow the Money. Go backwards and follow exactly where that cash came from and you will probably find some super sized wrongdoing, from Charities to Corporations. Churches and Education. Retail to Sweatshops. From War to the Spoils of War. Without dirty money there would probably be no banks.

(1) Anonymous, December 7, 2010 7:16 PM

are we the court

1. with no court case how can we be sure that our suspicions are correct and deny him using banks services 2. if we suspect someone of drug dealing can we still sell him a airplane ticket which may be for purpose of bringing drugs?

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