Stealing to Save a Life?

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

Rav Shlomo Halberstam, zt”l, the Bobover Rebbe, was instrumental in saving many lives during the Holocaust. The Bobover Rebbe borrowed whatever money he could to secure visas and travel documents for would-be victims. The money borrowed was directly responsible for lives being saved. After the war, Mr. Benedict, one of the lenders, demanded immediate repayment of all funds borrowed. Rav Shlomo Halberstam’s father, the previous Bobover Rebbe, Hy”d, was killed in 1941, during World War II. Rav Shlomo Halberstam himself barely escaped becoming a victim of the Nazis. When Rav Shlomo Halberstam finally came to America, he did not yet have a following of his own; it was only years later that the Bobover dynasty was reestablished. Hence, at the time that the loans were to be repaid, Rav Shlomo Halberstam was under great financial strain. He suggested to Mr. Benedict that they arrange a payment plan. In this way, the loan would be paid back in full but in small installments. Mr. Benedict, however, perhaps himself under great financial strain, wanted the full loan amount paid at once. Rav Shlomo Halberstam fully expected that many members of Klal Yisrael would help repay the loans, but at that point, he was left holding the bill.

Rav Shlomo argued that according to the letter of the law, he should not have to repay the loans at all. The Gemara says (Kesubos 19a) that no potential transgression stands in the way of saving lives except for the sins of murder, idolatry, and arayos. If one is faced with a choice of either doing nothing or stealing and saving someone’s life, surely, we would advise one to steal and save a life! It is true that the Yerushalmi seems to say that one should rather give up his life than steal; however, that is not the halacha. The Shulchan Aruch rules that one can steal to save a life. Further, the Gemara in Bava Kama teaches us that Chazal instituted that someone who damages items while trying to save someone’s life is exempt from providing restitution. Chazal’s rationale was that some people might refrain from attempting to save lives if they know that they will have to foot the bill for damages. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to our scenario? One should be able to borrow money in order to save a life without the need to worry about how he will pay it back. If we require the rescuer to pay back the funds, he might refrain from attempting to save lives. Rav Halberstam stated unequivocally that he wanted to pay back the full loan amounts.

However, he floated these arguments to induce the lender to grant him more time to pay back. Still, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, (Igros MosheC.M. 2:63) sided with Mr. Benedict. The Shulchan Aruch does, in fact, rule that one may steal in order to save a life. However, one can only steal with the intention of making restitution. True, there is a rabbinic enactment to exempt a life-saver from damages. However, that institution is limited in scope. It pertains specifically to damages caused in the course of saving a life. We don’t find anywhere that it absolves one from restitution for theft or from paying back loans. Hence, if a person stole while attempting to save a life, he would have to make restitution, as the Shulchan Aruch rules. Similarly, borrowed funds that were successfully used to save lives must be repaid. Apparently, the loans were not made in cash but rather in valuables. The Bobover Rebbe signed that he agreed to pay back their full value, which was stated in the loan document to be $10,000.

In truth, the Bobover Rebbe knew that the real value of the assets was closer to $3,000. Under duress, knowing that any delay would cost lives, he signed the loan documents. The question posed to Rav Moshe was, does the full $10,000 need to be repaid? On this point, Rav Moshe conceded that the Bobover Rebbe may be correct. The Gemara in Yevamos (106a) discusses scenario where someone was running away from pursuers and offered a captain an exorbitant sum of money to take him across the river.  The Gemara says that the fleeing individual only has to pay the captain his regular fare and not the promised windfall. The exorbitant sum was only promised under duress. Perhaps here, too, the Bobover Rebbe only signed the documents valuing the cheap assets at $10,000 because lives were hanging in the balance. Rav Moshe left this particular issue for a beis din to decide. However, he advised the Bobover Rebbe to pay the uncontested $3,000 immediately if he could.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at

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