The Mishnah (Yoma 85b) states that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya expounded the following verse regarding Yom Kippur, “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you, from all your sins shall you be clean before Hashem”- Yom Kippur atones for sins committed between man and Hashem (if one repents), however, Yom Kippur does not atone for sins committed between man and his fellow until one appeases the wronged party. Thus, if one hurts or insults one’s friend in any way, one must appease this friend so the individual may forgive him.
Theft Prosecutes First
Undoubtedly, one of the sins which Yom Kippur does not atone for until one appeases one’s friend is the sin of stealing. Another inherent disadvantage connected to the sin of stealing is that this sin serves as the foremost hindrance for one’s prayers to be answered, as our Sages teach us (Midrash Vayikra Rabba Chapter 33, Section 3), “If one has a large measure full of sins, theft prosecutes first.” This means that even if one has amassed many sins, theft is the first sin which stands out against an individual.
Obstacles Regarding the Sin of Theft
Many people unknowingly transgress specifically the grave prohibition of stealing, for they are unaware of all of the various issues related to this sin.
A widespread example of this trend can unfortunately be found even in the midst of upstanding and G-d-fearing businessmen who love and respect the Torah and those who learn it. Even so, such people may periodically allow their businesses to run in a way which infringes upon another’s money or assets in a halachically forbidden manner. Indeed, Rav Yehuda taught in the name of Rav (Baba Batra 165a), “Most individuals transgress the laws of stealing, few transgress the prohibitions of adultery, and all transgress the subcategories of Lashon Hara (forbidden slander).”
Moreover, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes (in his Chazon Ovadia-Yamim Nora’im, page 240) regarding an individual who took his case to a civil court (a court which does not rule in accordance with Torah law as opposed to a Bet Din, a rabbinical court) and sued another for money which he does not rightfully deserve according to Halacha, for instance, if one’s father-in-law has passed on and one stakes a claim for his wife to inherit equally alongside her brothers which is actually against Torah law for a daughter does not inherit along with a son, and by doing so, the individual received a portion of the inheritance based on the verdict of the civil court. (As a side note, daughters are entitled to some compensation but not the entire sum of the inheritance.) In this case, whatever this individual has collected from the inheritors against Torah law is considered stolen and one must return whatever he has taken from them and then appease them.
The same holds true for any person who has a monetary dispute with another party in which case one should not rationalize that he is certainly correct, for one can never realize his own faults; rather, one should consult a competent and learned halachic authority regarding whether or not one must return the money to the other party. Even if the other individual has not filed a lawsuit against him, one must nevertheless consult an expert halachic authority in order to fulfill one’s heavenly obligation, as the Mishnah (Avot, Chapter 1) states, “Establish a rabbi for yourself and remove yourself from doubt.”
Immersing in a Mikveh While Grasping a Dead Rodent
The Gemara (Ta’anit 7b) states: “Rabbi Ami said: Drought comes about as a result of the sin of stealing.” The Gemara proceeds to inquire: “How can one repair this?” The Gemara replies, “One should increase one’s prayer.” Maran zt”l quotes the words of the Sefer Gevurat Ari (authored by Hagaon Harav Aryeh Leib zt”l, head of the rabbinical court in Metz approximately two-hundred years ago) who writes that what the Gemara means by “increasing one’s prayer” is that after one returns the object which he stole, one should pray copiously, for if one does not return that which he stole, repentance and prayer will be of no avail, for the Gemara (ibid. 16a) that one who has stolen and confessed but has not returned that which he stole is compared to an individual immersing in the Mikveh while grasping a dead rodent (which according to Torah law is a source of impurity).
The Talmud Yerushalmi states (beginning of Chapter 2 of Masechet Ta’anit): “Rabbi Abba expounded the following verse: ‘Let us lift our hearts to our palms, to G-d in Heaven.’ This means that all should lift their hearts to check their palms to make sure they are free of any form of theft. ‘To G-d in Heaven’- only afterwards can we pray to Hashem in Heaven, for if one has a dead rodent in his hand, even if one were to immerse himself in the waters of the Shilo’ach or the waters of Bereshit, one shall never become pure until one discards the rodent from his hands.”
We must therefore awaken ourselves, especially during these holy days, and make sure that if we have any kind of stolen items in our possession, to return the money or item to its rightful owner and appease the wronged party as prescribed by Halacha. In the event of doubt regarding the correct Halacha or inability to return the stolen object or funds to the rightful owner, one should consult a prominent and expert halachic authority for further instruction on how to proceed.