228. Cheaters Never Prosper: The prohibition against withholding money due another person

Do not cheat your fellow… (Leviticus 19:13)

We’ve been talking a lot about denying possession of another’s property. Here, the Torah actually tells us not to withhold something that properly belongs to another. It doesn’t matter how his property came into our possession – it could be something we borrowed or that he earned. It also doesn’t matter how we deprive him of it – it could be by force, trickery or mere procrastination. The bottom line is all the same: if it’s rightfully someone else’s, give it to him!

The Sefer HaChinuch tells us that robbery by force, theft by stealth and this kind of deprivation are all the same – stealing is stealing, regardless of the methodology. If anything, it’s much easier to justify not paying a worker or failing to repay a loan. Nevertheless, the Talmud in Baba Metzia (111a) tells us that withholding property is actually a form of robbery. God created this sub-category of robbery in order to make withholding property more severe – doing so now violates two prohibitions!

That would then be the reason underlying this mitzvah. We’ve already discussed the concept of personal property rights and how ignoring them leads to chaos (see, for example, Mitzvah #224). Since withholding is so easy to justify, God “doubled up” on the prohibition in order to strengthen us in this matter and keep us farther away from stumbling in it.

This mitzvah applies to both men and women in all times and places. It is discussed in the Talmud in tractate Baba Metzia (111a-b). It is codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Choshen Mishpat 359. This prohibition is #247 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #37 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be fulfilled today as listed in the Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar of the Chofetz Chaim.