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By: Rabbi Max Sutton

Alan resided on a university campus and shared a room with Bobby and Sam. Bobby and Sam were each independently in the used cell phone business and they both supplied phones for the student body. One afternoon, Alan left his phone in his room to charge. Upon his return some two hours later, the phone was missing. Since he’d locked the room before he left and found the door still locked upon his return, he accused Bobby and Sam of stealing his phone. Alan immediately reached out to our Bet Din to help resolve the matter.

Upon brief investigation, it was apparent that either Bobby or Sam had stolen the phone; the room’s lock had recently been changed and all of the keys were safely in Alan, Bobby, and Sam’s possession. When questioned, however, both denied entering the room during the two-hour period Alan had been gone. Each held the other person responsible for stealing the phone. With no concrete evidence of who the culprit could be, our Bet Din was compelled to dismiss the case.

That same evening, Bobby was expelled from school on severe charges unrelated to the theft. Having lost the customer base for his business, he sold all of his cell phones to Sam at a discounted price. Immediately thereafter, Alan reopened his claim against Sam, demanding the return of his phone, which he felt was clearly in Sam’s possession. Alan reasoned that Sam had either stolen his phone or purchased it from Bobby. Sam reinstated that he did not steal Alan’s phone and that his purchase of Bobby’s stock came after the Bet Din had absolved Bobby of blame. Sam further claimed that he lawfully purchased Bobby’s stock, which had no charge upon it. Is the Bet Din to reopen the case against Sam or not?

How should the Bet Din rule and why?


According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, in instances in which a claimant is suing two separate parties for damages only one party inflicted, he can only recover his loss if the guilty party comes forward and takes responsibility. If, however, both parties deny liability by blaming the other for damages, they are both absolved from payment. Each is not required to make even a partial payment since no evidence exists as to who inflicted the damage. Hence, in the absence of an absolute claim, a plaintiff cannot recover his loss.

A decision submitted by a Bet Din to absolve a defendant of liability due to the lack of evidence against him is valid and effective like all other verdicts submitted. In a classic ruling in the Shulhan Aruch, four parties were absolved from returning a strip of property to a claimant since he could not prove which of the four originally sold him their land. Thereafter, the four sold all of their properties to one party, thereby creating a situation in which the claimant’s lost strip of land was now inevitably in the possession of one new owner. Although the claimant opened legal proceedings against the new owner, his attempt to retrieve his strip of land was nevertheless rejected. The logic behind this ruling is that a buyer purchasing property is entitled to all the rights and benefits of the seller that existed at the time of sale. Since the new owner purchased the rights of each of the four sellers’ abilities to deny the claimant of a strip of their land, the claimant is once again rejected.

The abovementioned ruling is applicable in instances in which a buyer purchases a legal right of a seller. If, however, an item is stolen by one of two parties, and both deny all accusations, and thereafter one of the two purchases all of the other’s stock, the above ruling does not apply. Since the item was stolen, the buyer did not purchase a legal right which belonged to the seller. Hence, the buyer of the stock is either guilty of stealing the item himself or of knowingly purchasing stolen merchandise from a thief.

One who knowingly purchases stolen merchandise is obligated to return the stolen goods to its rightful owner. He is not entitled to collect from the owner any reimbursement for the purchase he made. As a matter of fact, some halachic authorities absolve the thief from reimbursing the buyer, since the buyer was aware that the merchandise was stolen.

VERDICTAn Illegal Purchase

Our Bet Din ruled that Sam is obligated to return Alan’s stolen phone to him. Even if Sam believes that he is not the thief, nevertheless, he knowingly purchased the stolen phone from Bobby. Hence, Sam is required to return the phone to Alan without reimbursement of his purchase price. Although originally our Bet Din absolved both Sam and Bobby due to the lack of incriminating evidence, once Sam purchased all of Bobby’s stock, it became inevitable that he possessed stolen merchandise. Sam complied with our ruling and presented before Alan the entire stock of phones in his possession. Although the information on the phones was deleted, nonetheless Alan claims to have clearly recognized his phone and collected his loss. Our Bet Din further chastised Sam and Bobby for their foul business dealings, especially since neither of the two was willing to confess to the crime.

Double Crossed?

Harry, a real estate developer, agreed to become partners with Steve, who would provide the financial backing for the building of a new shopping mall.  The two decided that Harry’s corporation would offer their bid on the property for sale and, if their bid was accepted, Steve would arrange the payment.  At first their bid was rejected but, months later, when the highest bidder was disqualified, Harry’s corporation ultimately purchased the property.  Steve pressed charges against Harry in Bet Din claiming that he swindled the deal from him.

Harry, the winner of the auction, sold 50% of the shares to another investor for five million dollars upfront.  Steve not only demanded that half of that sum be forwarded to him, he also claimed to be owed half the anticipated revenue once the shopping mall was complete.

Harry confirmed that he sold half the shares for five million dollars to an outside investor, but defended that Steve left out a very important detail in his story. Harry asserted that Steve phoned him to back out of the deal almost immediately after they offered their bid for the property. Harry said, that the explanation Steve gave him for reneging was that another opportunity came up which would tie up most of his available credit line. Steve responded by denying that any such phone call took place and that Harry used him to secure the purchase and later dumped him. Is Steve entitled to the proceeds of
the shares sold by Harry?

How Should The Bet Din Rule And Why?