Thursday, February 15, 2007

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - What Do You Do With Dirty Money?

(Picture courtesy of

I heard a story (second hand, but originating with someone who was there):

An Israeli fellow had spent many years involved in some kinds of criminal activity. Recently, he has become a baal teshuva and changed his ways, becoming somewhat close to a certain Rov (who I respect greatly).

He told this Rov that he would like to give him $120,000 tzedoka to help with this Rov's mosdos (who desperately need funds). To this, the Rov asked, "How did you come to have this money?" The fellow said that the money was made through his criminal activity (I believe sale of illegal drugs) in the past - but that he no longer has anything to do with that stuff.

The Rov told him that he wouldn't accept any money that was earned that way - to which the fellow said that he would like to give it to someone who will use it for good, but the Rov said that dirty money can't really be used for anything good.

The fellow asked the Rov, "So what can I do with it?"

And the Rov said, "I think you should burn it."

The man told the Rov, "I can't burn it - but if you'd like, I'll give it to you, and you can burn it."

So the Rov did. He took the money, lit a match, and burned it right then and there.

If that's the halacha (If profit from the sale of illegal drugs is technically assur behanoh - that it's forbidden to derive pleasure from it) than the Rov is clearly right and this whole conversation is over. But if it's not the halacha, I would have to admit that I have a hard time with this. I can think of half a dozen explanations for the Rov's decision, but as they say in Yiddish, "ich ken es heren, ubur nisht der-heren." I can understand it in theory, but honestly, I can't help but be bothered that this is somewhat being frum at the expense of others...

My initial reaction was to think of countless ideas for what I would have thought are better uses for this money, and while I can understand intellectually that ill-gotten gains may be impacted negatively from a spiritual perspective, does the money halachically have to be destroyed? And how do we know if the dollar that we got for change in the grocery wasn't once used in a crime? So, sure, I think that this fellow should get rid of the money, but shouldn't someone else - even the police dept or the local drug rehab center - be able to use that money for something positive? When people have no food on their tables, shouldn't this money be able to at least help people who have real struggles just surviving? Or, rather than burn it, couldn't he just hand it to the first homeless guy he sees?

This reminds me of a story about three talmidim of the Mezritcher Maggid that were - as was their custom - preparing for a Rosh Chodesh seuda. They asked each other, who has some money for the expenses? The Hafloh replied that he would donate the couple rubles to cover the food - but another talmid said, "How do we know that money is 'kosher' - where did you get it?"

The Hafloh said, "I received it from litigants that had come to me with a shaylo and I paskened."

The other talmidim said, "Perhaps the litigants were unhappy with your psak. We cannot use such tainted money,"

So, (I think it was) R' Shmelke (later of Nikolsburg) said, "I worked for someone today and earned a couple rubles. I will cover the costs."

The talmidim said, "No, perhaps you didn't work as hard as you should have, or maybe you worked slow, or maybe your employer wasn't happy with your performance - we cannot use money that has been possibly tainted as ill-gotten"

Finally, R' Zushe said, "I will cover it."

"What?!", said the talmidim, "Where do YOU have money from?"

"I borrowed it," said R' Zushe.

"Very well!" said the talmidim, "In that case it can't be tainted. We will use your funds!"

It seems that all money can be considered tainted - and what about the origin of the money that R' Zushe borrowed? We don't know where the lender got the money - which was probably at least as ill-gotten as the money of the Hafloh and R' Shmelke. Rather, it seems to me that they were making a point about honesty, but more than that, it seems that lending (a form of charity) sort-of "cleans" the money (yeah, I don't like that word either), or let's say, it ends the need for investigation. Couldn't this fellow's $120,000 have been used in some legitimate way?

Again, if that's the halacha, then I am fine with it, but if it's not, maybe you can explain it to me?


At February 15, 2007 at 7:19:00 AM EST, Blogger Rafi G. said...

It does seem lik ebeing frum at someone else's expense. From the little I remember there are things one can do even with tainted money, such as build the bathrooms of a shul/yeshiva, etc... (I think anything but the beis medrash itself). Maybe even give it to the poor?

As far as lending I do remember there is a twerm by money loans in the gemara that milva l'hotzaa nitna - a monetary loan is meant to be taken out. The concept is used to say that the money he has once he borrows it is for all intents and purposes new money with no relationship to the original owner. He has to pay back the same amount but not the same bills... maybe that explains how the loan makes the money clean..

At February 15, 2007 at 7:35:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CE, I understood the story with the former criminal and his Rov a little differently:

I think the Rov was trying to impart a mussar lesson to that BT. If he had used the money for a good purpose, deep down, it might have given him satisfaction so HE would have been benefiting from the ill gotten gains. And that's why he suggested to burn it, to stress the former ill deeds and the regret he needed to have. This is also why the Rov burned the money in front of him.

In the story of R Zushe, the question was not the origin of the money, but under what circumstances it was received or given. So The Haflo or R Shmelke may have gotten it under false pretenses, or without the complete agreement of the giver. However R Zushe had borrowed the money and would later pay it back, therefore his act of receiving it remained untainted.

At February 15, 2007 at 7:57:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to know the halacha, ask a shaila to a qualified Rav, not to fellow bloggers.

At February 15, 2007 at 10:22:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rafi, Plonimus & Bob,
Good points all!

Plonimus - I was thinking the same thing, but it's an expensive mussar lesson... especially since so many others are no longer able to benefit from it. Can't we think of a way that a lesson could be taught AND others benefit?

Bob, I'm not really asking for a psak here. Obviously, if that's the halacha than my point doesn’t begin, but my struggles to understand this is based on the possibility that it's not the halacha.
Let's use food as an example - I can agree that ill-gotten gains are non-Kosher, but is it like Pork or a Cheeseburger?

If it's like pork, than it's NOT assur behanoh (we are permitted to give pork to a non-Jew to benefit from, or even to a Jew who is starving or in medication).

If it's a cheeseburger, than it IS assur behanoh and must be destroyed.

Now, I'm not a rov, and I don't have to pasken this shaylo, so I am going based on the assumption that its pork (and I do suspect that profit from sale of illegal drugs is more like pork than the cheeseburger). Obviously, if I'm wrong (very possible) than the point is moot.

At February 15, 2007 at 11:13:00 AM EST, Blogger Chaim B. said...

What is the shayla that needs to be addressed here? Mishna in Bava Kamma (113) says you cannot accept charity from stolen goods - you cannot have any hana'ah from gezeilah (see S"A haRav, Hil Gezeila, seifim 11-13.) Do you mean to suggest some distinction between drug money and stolen goods (I don't see a difference). There is a seperate din (B"K 94) that if you steal and wish to do tshuvah but cannot find the owner of the stolen goods to make direct restitution, then you should give the money to a public cause that everyone (meaning: even those whom you stole the money from) will benefit from, in this way making indirect restitution.

At February 15, 2007 at 11:22:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes. If it's techincally gezeila (and that is part of my question, is it?), than it should be returned (not burned), if it cannot be returned than it should be (like you satated) given to a public cause.
So my question remains, why burn it?

At February 15, 2007 at 11:28:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW, In speaking with someone last night (after writing this post) I was told that this money is possibly worse than gezeila, and it's really like money recieved to murder - blood-money -(since so many lives are lost and ruined in the illegal drug trade), and perhaps that is the reason that this money should not be useable.

At February 15, 2007 at 12:02:00 PM EST, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

This reminds me of the story of the baalei tshuva of Krakow.

The story about the borrowed money is brought down in Sippurei Chassidim by Rabbi Zevin. (I think it's in moadim, but I might be wrong.)
I'm also pretty sure that in Rabbi Zevin's telling it is R' Leib Soros who borrows the money.

At February 15, 2007 at 12:17:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Soccor dad,
Thanks! I repeated it the way I heard it, but R' Zevin is probably a better source.

At February 15, 2007 at 1:37:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great picture!
(I say forget the question, we rely on the Rov's decision).

At February 15, 2007 at 4:54:00 PM EST, Blogger Gandalin said...

"The Rov told him that he wouldn't accept any money that was earned that way - to which the fellow said that he would like to give it to someone who will use it for good, but the Rov said that dirty money can't really be used for anything good."

It seemed to me when I first read this maayse, that the Rov was indicating that even if this dirty money was applied to a good project, it would harm that project and bring no good to it, even if it was given to a needy beggar, it would end up hurting that beggar, and thus the best thing to do was to remove this evil from the world by burning the money.

At February 15, 2007 at 5:16:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Right, but why? Is that the rule? Lechora, if it is not halachically required to destroy it, it would indeed seem be useable in some way (see the pork vs cheeseburger example above)...
Is there an example, that fits this case, where we are required to DESTROY the money?

But please note, I am not criticizing about this rov, nor am I opposing the decision, I am just trying to understand it conceptually.

At February 15, 2007 at 9:32:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would think of it as a one-off piece of advice. The man needed to let go of his past. He couldn't do that if he retained the money, or anything that he acquired with the money - even the satisfaction of giving tzedoka.

As for the poor people who could have used the money, if it isn't morally correct for them to sell drugs themselves it isn't morally correct for them to receive the proceeds of drug sales. The gabboim (and perhaps even the recipients) would become complicit in his crimes by knowingly accepting the money. This would be morally bad for them, and it would also make the crimes seem lighter in his eyes. These are additional reasons why any use of his money would have obstructed his teshuva. And in a case like this one I think we have to say that G-d who provides for widows and orphans will do so without causing them to harm another Jew.

At February 16, 2007 at 5:40:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CE: I agree with Gandalin. This has nothing to do with halacha, I'm sure a heter can be found, and probably a sound one. Apparently the rav thought that this is "dirty" money, and will bring evil to whoever it's given to.
I have no problem believing that the money itself (yes, the paper) could become impure in a way and harm its recepient. To this you may ask that it may then apply to any money we get, let's say grosery change... To which I may answer - Shomer ptaim Hashem (this can be understood it two ways: 1)Hashem will make sure that you don't get durty money, or 2) Hashem will not let that money harm you even if it is durty, as long as you're a peti - have no clue about it...

At February 16, 2007 at 5:58:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a similar story that happened to me: Last year I had a very bad tennant renting out our apartment, a real criminal. I'm sure he cheeted whoever he came in contact with, and I was no different. Getting the monthly rent out of him was a struggle every time, and evntually he stopped paying all together and refused to leave! From the begining I was very uncomfortable using his money but I assumed that it's halachically mutar, so I used it. However after he refused to leave the apartment for 6 months I was so disguisted with it that I said to my self "I want to have nothing to do with his durty money!" and I took whatever was left of this money (only a 200 shekels by then) and ripped it up and threw it in the garbage... And shortly afterwards he left...

At February 16, 2007 at 6:34:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Chabakuk Elisha: I saw this in this week's Parsha Parts and thought it was quite timely:

And these are the laws (Shmos 21:1).

This Parsha comes before Parshas Terumah to teach you that before a person can give Tzedaka and display the generosity of his heart, he must make sure that there is no possibility that his money comes from stolen property. Otherwise, the Tzedakah that he gives is like a stolen Lulav. The Mitzvah is invalid because it was generated through a transgression and it is not fulfilled. This is the meaning of the Posuk, Guard justice and perform acts of righteousness because My salvation is near. First justice and then acts of righteousness. Here as well, Mishpatim first and then Terumah, the gifts for the Mishkan. It must be in this order.

--Beis Haleivi

At February 16, 2007 at 8:38:00 AM EST, Blogger Sechel said...

I'm not a posek but I'd like to suggest a possible solution:

The dishonestly obtained money could be mixed together with an additional sum of money that the person earned in an honest way. Then the total could be given to charity. That way if the person had any feeling of enjoyment or benefit from giving the tzedakah, this could be ascribed to the giving of the portion of the honestly obtained money and not to the rest.

The amount of honestly obtained money would have to be significant compared with the rest.

By the way, I'm not sure it's even legal to destroy money in the USA.

At February 16, 2007 at 8:44:00 AM EST, Blogger Sechel said...

A better solution: The person could make an effort to find out whom it was stolen from, and return it to them. If that is not possible, it could be turned over to the police.

At February 16, 2007 at 8:52:00 AM EST, Blogger Sechel said...

Also, regarding A Simple Jew's quote from Beis Haleivi:

"The Mitzvah is invalid because it was generated through a transgression and it is not fulfilled."

Perhaps then giving the money as charity is not a mitzvah in this case, but at least, hopefully, the giving itself wouldn't be a transgression, if the person didn't get enjoyment from it, in the manner I described above (through mixing with honest money). In addition, giving the portion of honestly obtained money might be considered a mitzvah.

At February 16, 2007 at 1:10:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I first heard this story (not from this blog, but through mutual friends of Chabakuk Elisha), I was elated!

First, because it gave me chizuk that we have such tzaddikim, even today's materialistic age, who are pure from any craving after money.

Second, because after hearing of several scandals in the frum community in which rabbis and menahelim were allegedly engaged in money-laundering and cheating the government in order to cover the astronomical expenses of their mosdos (as well as some other disgusting scandals of another sort), it was gratifying to hear of an "old-fashioned erlicher Yid" who put high principles before all other considerations.

May this Rav be an example to us all!

At February 16, 2007 at 1:20:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Question for Sechel:

What about the klal of "ein mevatlin issur l'chatchiloh?"

At February 16, 2007 at 3:03:00 PM EST, Blogger Sechel said...

Smashed Hat:

Is the actual issur on the giving or on the hana'ah?


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