Prohibited Unethical Goods

לולב הגזל והיבש פסול של אשירה ושל עיר הנדחת פסול נקטם ראשו נפרצו עליו פסול נפרדו עליו כשר

“A stolen lulav or a dried out lulav is invalid (to use to fulfill the mitzvah). [If it comes from an] asheirah (a tree used for idolatry) or from a city condemned for idolatry, it is invalid. If its tip is cut or if it is split, it is invalid. If its leaves are spread, it is kosher.”

-Mishnah Sukkah 3:1

From Judaism we learn that we are responsible for where the goods we purchase and consume come from. Those origins must be consistent with the demand that the good be ethically produced, and this includes the fair treatment of the worker. If an employer denies a worker his wage, this is like stealing. If we benefit from these goods, we are partners in the crime of theft. Proverbs 29:24 forbids this: “He who shares with a thief is his own enemy; He hears the curse but does not tell.”

Maimonides expanded on this teaching, adding that someone who buys from a person who steals collaborates with the thief and encourages him to steal again in the future. He said that if one who steals cannot find anyone to buy his products, he will not steal.[1] Elsewhere, Maimonides connected buying unethically obtained goods with the Biblical prohibition in Leviticus 19:14 against putting a stumbling block before the blind, because our enabling purchase of the unethical goods becomes the obstacle placed in front of a willfully “blind” person selling them.[2]


photo by wildcreator

The Talmud offers an analogy to explain the responsibility of the consumer with regard to unethically obtained goods. In an instance of an illegal sale where the consumer incurs a fine, the Talmud asks: “Why should we fine the buyer? Why don’t we fine the seller?” The Rabbis reply, “It is not the mouse (the seller) who steals, it is the hole (the consumer) that steals.” The hole is harmless without the mouse, so exonerating the thief and the seller who fenced stolen property is not the right response. But it is important to understand that the hole (the consumer) is what enables the mouse.[3]

Most powerfully, in the Mishnah the Rabbis prohibit using a stolen lulav in order to fulfill the commandment of waving the lulav during Sukkot. In this scenario, the Rabbis categorize a stolen lulav along with other prohibited lulavim, including a lulav that grew on a tree that was used for idolatry or a lulav that grew in a city condemned for idolatry.[4] As its essence, idolatry is the denial of God. And from this, Judaism teaches us that benefitting from a stolen good is like to idolatry and is therefore a denial of God.


[1] Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah<, Laws on Theft 5:1

[2] Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Stolen and Lost Objects 5:1

[3] Babylonia Talmud, Gittin 45a

[4] Mishnah Sukkah3:1