Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Holiness and the counter clerk

Who and what we are as a people are encapsulated this week in a single chapter of the Torah, Leviticus 19—a chapter often referred to in this column because it is, in fact, a condensed version of the entire Torah. It begins with an exhortation:

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”

The exhortation refers back to Exodus 19:6: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” — “mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh.”

Those words were spoken to Israel at Mount Sinai as it prepared to receive the Torah, beginning with God’s pronouncement of the Aseret HaDibrot, the so-called Ten Commandments, all 10 of which are contained in Leviticus 19, in one way or another. (Dibrot means statements or declarations, not commandments. The Torah has commandments — mitzvoth — that cover all 10 points.)

In fact, the Midrash suggests that Leviticus 19 is what was read at the “Hakhel (Assembly) ceremony” every seventh year, because, in the words of the sage Rabbi Chiya, “most of the Torah’s essential components are contained therein.” On the other hand, “Rabbi Levi said, ‘[It is because] the Aseret HaDibrot are incorporated within it.” (See Leviticus Rabbah 24:5.)

There is so much to learn in this one chapter about the Torah and about our role in the world.

For example, no hierarchy of law exists here; there is no distinction between our obligations to God and our obligations to people, or to our world. Reverence for parents is followed by Shabbat observance, is followed by a ban on idol worship, is followed by rules about a sacrifice, is followed by laws about our obligations to the underprivileged, is followed by a rule against misusing God’s Name for profit, is followed by a prohibition against fraud, and so on.

At Sinai, we agreed to obey God’s mitzvot, period. Whatever classification people eventually gave to each mitzvah — moral/ethical/social/ritual/religious—is irrelevant in the Torah’s view. All of its mitzvot are God’s mitzvot; all must be observed equally. “Be as careful [in observing] a ‘light’ precept as a ‘heavy one,” said Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, “because you do not know what reward attaches to observing mitzvot.” (See Pirkei Avot 2:2.)

Put in contemporary terms, parking in a crosswalk is as much a violation of halachah as not putting on tefillin every weekday morning.

Mistreating counter clerks is just as much a violation as biting into a pepperoni pizza.

Behavior always has been a major concern of Jewish law, starting with the Torah, and rabbinic literature reflects that.

According to the Babylonian sage Abaye, for example, before God would love a person, that person had to be loved by the people he or she met each day.

The Talmud then illustrates this by offering an insight into the character of no less a personage than Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, he who snatched Judaism from extinction when the Second Temple was destroyed. According to his peers, the Talmud says, no one (not even a non-Jew) was ever able to greet Ben Zakkai on the street before he greeted them. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate B’rachot 17a.)

As for the counter clerk, elsewhere in the Talmud (BT Pesachim 3a), we are taught: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: ‘At no time should a person allow a gross expression to leave his mouth’….The School of Rabbi Yishmael taught: ‘At all times a person should speak in clean language….’”

It does not require a great deal of thought to realize this applies to how we speak to a counter clerk — or to anyone else, for that matter.

Leviticus 19 has much to say about our dealings with a counter clerk.

Assume he or she gives us too much change. Verse 11 states, “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another,” and verse 13 tells us, “You shall not defraud your fellow.”

If we keep that money, not only are we stealing from the store, we also are stealing from the clerk, because most stores, at least, make the clerks pay for whatever should be in the register that is not there; so we must add verse 13: “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”

There are other ways this can be applied. For example, we receive a letter in the mail and the postage stamp is not canceled. Can we use that stamp on a letter we mail? After all, in this case, no one gets hurt, not even the clerk.

That question was asked of a contemporary posek by the name of Rabbi Menashe Klein (the Ungvarer Rebbe). The stamp, he ruled, “represents the price for the delivery of the letter and the sender received the value for his stamp. The fact that the stamp was not canceled was due to the negligence of the postal employee….[We] must tear up the stamp; [we] may not use it.” (See his Mishnah Halachot 6:288.)

Halachically, the law of the land is the law — dina d’machulta dina. According to the law of the land, there is a fee for mailing a letter, payable by postage stamp. If the stamp is not canceled, the fee may or may not have been paid, and the law may or may not have been broken. It all depends on whether we use the stamp. If we do, then the fee was not paid. Because the original culprit was the negligent clerk, we make that clerk complicit in our crime, or the clerk abetted us in the commission of that crime. Either way, halachah is violated, and the fact that we took advantage of someone else’s carelessness ended up harming that person—even if he or she will never know it—which is yet another violation.

This Shabbat, study Leviticus 19 very carefully. There is so much here we need to learn, understand, and put into practice if, indeed, we are to be holy, as our God is holy.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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