Question: A few years ago, someone stole a certain sum of money from me. This individual has now approached me wishing to return this sum of money but he is crying to me about how it is possible that he will be able to return all the money he has stolen from so many people. What should I do?
Answer: One who steals something from another and then wishes to repent must first and foremost return the stolen object. If the thief does not return the stolen object, he can never fully repent, for the Torah states, “And he shall return the object which he has stolen or the wages which he has withheld.” Clearly, the sin of stealing is a negative Torah commandment which then turns into a positive commandment which means that if one transgresses the negative commandment of stealing, one must then fulfill the positive commandment of returning the stolen object.
Presumably, if the thief were to return the stolen object to its owner, the owner should gladly accept it and forgive the thief completely for his iniquity in order to allow the thief the opportunity to repent fully. We have already mentioned in the past that one cannot gain atonement for interpersonal misdeeds without first appeasing the wronged party. Surely, stealing is considered an interpersonal sin and thus one should be required to return the stolen object in order to mollify his friend.
However, the Baraita (Baba Kama 94b) states that when a thief wishes to repent and returns a stolen object, our Sages enacted not to accept the stolen object from him in order to open a pathway to repentance for him. This means that when the thief approaches the owner of the stolen object and tells him that he would like to return the stolen object, the owner should refuse to accept the item in order to ease the thief’s repentance process, for if the thief sees how hard Teshuva is to achieve by now having to return large sums of money to all the people he has stolen from, he might be tempted to give up the idea of repenting altogether and remain a sinner. Thus, our Sages decreed that one must not accept a stolen object from him in order to allow the thief to repent.
This is also the meaning of the following Gemara: “Rabbi Yochanan said that this enactment was established in the days of Rebbi (referring to Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Nassi). Once, a thief wanted to repent and his wife told him, ‘Fool! If you have come to repent, you will not be left with even your belt!’ The thief reconsidered and did not repent. At this point the Sages said, ‘Regarding thieves and those who have loaned money on interest who come to repent, one must not accept reimbursement from them. If one does, the spirit of the wise does not dwell in him.’” Rashi and the Nimukei Yosef explain the statement, “the spirit of the wise does not dwell in him” to mean that this person does not possess a spirit of wisdom or piety.
Thus, regarding our question, we see that one should not accept back the stolen object from the thief for this can lead to the thief’s disregard of his wish to repent altogether. However, in practice, there are certain situations which do not warrant refusal of accepting the stolen object, and we shall, G-d-willing, explain them in the following Halacha.