Reading Another’s Mail or Email, Parents

Is it stealing to read another person’s emails if you’re concerned they are doing something wrong or unethical?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for raising the important issue. There is a very old decree regarding this instituted by Rabbeinu Gershom Me’or HaGoleh (lit., “Rabbi Gershom the light of the exile”). Rabbeinu Gershom (c. 960-1040) was one of early leaders of German (and Ashkenazi) Jewry. In addition to being a great Talmudist, teacher and commentator, he instituted a number of important religious decrees, many of which were accepted by Ashkenazi Jewry or by all Jewry ever since. Some of the most famous ones were to ban polygamy, and that one may not divorce his wife against her will.

One decree made by Rabbeinu Gershom was not to read someone else’s mail. In fact throughout the ages many people would seal their letters with the Hebrew letters pai-gimmel-yud-nun daled-reish-gimmel-mem-hei written over the seal. This stands for “poraitz geder yishchenu nachash d’Rabbeinu Gershom Me’or HaGoleh.” The translation is, “‘One who breaches a fence – a snake will bite him’ (Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 10:8) – of Rabbeinu Gershom.” I.e., one who breaks the “fence” decreed by Rabbeiu Gershom will suffer the consequence.

This decree against reading another’s mail would clearly extend to any other type of private correspondence, such as email or text messages, or to eavesdropping on his private conversations. Likewise, one who received a personal letter or email may not show it or forward it to others without the permission of the sender (Chikikei Lev Y.D. 69).

However, this would not extend to cases where a person has no right to his privacy, so to speak. If a teacher or parent suspects a child is secretly engaging in inappropriate behaviors, he has both the right and the obligation to determine the extent of the problem in order to properly deal with it. The same would be true of a Jewish court which has a need to examine a person’s private documents and correspondence.

See this article for more information.

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