Adar I 5771
But Can’t I Use It – Just This Once?
by Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein
The Halacha is clear that, in general, borrowing something from someone without her permission is considered by the Torah to be gezel, theft. Certainly when it comes to taking something that gets used up by using it – like food, drinks or tissues, for example – it is considered theft to take it without permission. But even if a person takes something very briefly and returns it, or even if it is only being taken as “a joke” with the intention of being immediately returned, it is considered stealing and is therefore prohibited. Believe it or not, this is true even if I am 100% certain that my friend will not mind if I use her stuff without asking; and even if I am 100% certain that when she finds out she will be happy that I used it. All the while that I did not get permission to use it, I am not allowed to do so. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Let’s take a look at some of the circumstances that I am allowed to use an item that belongs to someone else without her explicit permission right now.
– Based on past permission granted. If one has told you in the past that she does not mind for you to use a particular item without her permission in the future, it is permissible to rely on that permission. Therefore, if one made an explicit statement, such as “Please feel free to use my shoes/sweaters/hair iron/cereal/car/etc. whenever you want,” it is permissible to use it until that permission is revoked.
– Based on a precedent. If in the past, this friend has allowed you to use this item, and you are certain that the current circumstances are the same enough that she would let you use it again, it is permissible. This comes up often among siblings or roommates. If they let each other borrow items freely, and they are sure that in this situation it would also be fine, it is permitted. It is still best, however, for there to be an explicit statement of permission; that way there is no ambiguity and it is clearly permissible to use in the future.
– For use in the performance of a mitzvah. An item that is being used for a mitzvah is permissible to take, use and return without permission from the owner. This means that one would be allowed to use someone’s siddur, Tehillim or sefer without asking. There are two exceptions to this, however. 1 – If the item was found “put away” in a place that it is clear that the owner is not interested in other people using it, it is not permissible to take it. 2 – The item certainly cannot be used up (like grape juice for Kiddush) or ruined in any way – and must be put back exactly the way it was found. The Shulchan Aruch haRav from the Baal HaTanya writes that if one does not return the item properly, then the regular halacha of theft kicks in and one is very likely not even yotzei the mitzvah they were trying to perform!