Theft – or for that matter any crime or misdemeanor – should be unequivocally condemned. But in Lubavitch tradition, one type of theft was actually lauded: surreptitiously copying hassidic manuscripts without permission, or gaining unauthorized access to private hassidic writings.
In some cases, such conduct was even furtively encouraged. Larceny such as this – sometimes known in Lubavitch parlance as hassidishe gneiva – is described in a number of Lubavitch tales.
The fourth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn (Maharash, 1834-1882), was extremely organized. His daily routine barely changed, and hassidim knew exactly when he would go out for his daily walk. During that time, they would sneak into his office, post a sentry at the door to warn of his return, and copy his hassidic writings. One of the clandestine copyists was Sarah Shterna (1858-1942) – the Maharash’s daughter-in-law and wife of Maharash’s successor, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber (Rashab, 1860-1920). Years later, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak (Rayatz, 1880-1950) – the son of Sarah Shterna and Rashab – was caught covertly copying his father’s hassidic writings. Rashab angrily declared: “Even in my own home, I am not the master?!” Rayatz was brokenhearted, and asked his father for a penance for his crime. After some time, Rashab gave his son permission to copy his hassidic writings, and even when Rashab went on a trip, he would leave the key to his room in his son’s hand.
Recounting these tales in 1951, Rayatz’s son-in-law and successor – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Ramash, 1902-1994) – remarked that surely Maharash knew that his writings were being copied, and had he really wanted to sequester his manuscripts, he could have taken appropriate measures. Also, why did Rayatz need to sneak into his father’s room? Why didn’t he first ask for access to the hassidic writings?
Ramash explained that certain spiritual forces can only be obtained furtively. This is what we learn from Jacob, who sneakily stole the blessings from Esau.
On another occasion, Ramash recorded a story in a slightly different vein. The founder of Chabad philosophy, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (ca.1745-1812), had written on the cover of a certain hassidic manuscript that unauthorized access to the booklet carried a ban of excommunication in this world and the next.
Alas, the manuscript was lost in a fire, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman asked whether anyone had studied the work. His oldest son and eventual successor, Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri (1773-1827), was surprised: “But you wrote on the cover that there is a ban of excommunication in this world and in the next?” Rabbi Shneur Zalman responded: “Where is your mesirut nefesh, your self-sacrifice, for Hassidism?!”
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the hassidishe gneiva is the Lubavitch attitude to the one time on the Jewish calendar when we are actually encouraged to steal. Every year at the Seder, the middle of the three matzot is broken and the larger half designated for the afikoman at the end of the meal. In one of many attempts at the Seder to keep children attentive and interested, young participants are encouraged to stealthily steal the afikoman. The source for this custom, which seems to be counter-educational, is a passage in the Talmud which says that we grab (hotfim) the matza to make sure that the children do not fall asleep (B. Pesahim 109a).
In 1946, Ramash prepared a Haggada that meticulously recorded Lubavitch Passover practice. In this work, he noted that the custom in the Rebbe’s home – referring to his father-in-law, Rayatz, who was the leader of the Lubavitch Hassidim at the time – was not to steal the afikoman. By way of explanation, Ramash added a succinct reference to a talmudic passage: Even someone who steals from a thief, tastes the flavor of larceny (B.Brachot 5b). Ramash, it appears, was speaking to the educational costs of encouraging theft, even if the practice was confined to the Seder night.
It is unclear how far back this afikoman custom goes, and we should note that it is not confined to Lubavitch: other hassidic groups also avoid this ritual. It appears, however, that it was not always accepted Lubavitch practice to avoid stealing the afikoman. In his writings, Ramash recorded that in 1935, while in Warsaw, Rayatz related the following episode. Rayatz’s grandfather, Maharash, wanted his children to steal the afikoman. The children, however, did not dare. One Seder night, his oldest daughter, Devora Leah, plucked up the courage and grabbed the afikoman – and her father, Maharash, gave her a pearl necklace as a reward. What began as a practice in the Rebbe’s home – apparently born from respect and awe – has become standard Lubavitch custom. Ramash justified that practice on pedagogical grounds. As noted, Lubavitch is not the only hassidic group that discourages stealing the afikoman, but the Lubavitch practice results in a nuanced approach to larceny: hassidishe gneiva is lauded, but stealing the afikoman is considered to have a negative educational message.