Educational Unit on Plagiarism- Jewish Sources
Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Dean, Tiferet High School for Girls (formerly Gamla High School for Girls)
Lawrence, New York
Reprinted here with permission.
Rabbi Hoffman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the school at 516 239-4190 or 239 4475
There seems to be a prevalent notion out there that cheating isn’t really wrong, even from a halachic perspective. Indeed, supposedly, this ruling emanated from some Rabbis or Poskim. I’d like to suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.
We shall start with Shlomo HaMelech: In Mishlei 22:22 he writes: “Rob not from a poor person – for he is poor.” Chazal tell us (Yalkut Shimoni Mishlei 560; Midrash Tanchuma BaMidbar 27) that Shlomo HaMelech is referring to plagiarism – to reciting a statement without attributing it to its source.
Just as a poor person has no protector – no guardian to right wrongs and injustices, the same is true with intellectual property. An earlier thinker came up with an idea. Just as the poor person has no protector, so too does the thinker have no protector. Shlomo HaMelech is appealing to our conscience – do not steal from a poor person – for he is poor – he has no protector. Do not cheat or plagiarize for they too have no protector.
We skip now to Queen Esther (Megilas Esther 2:22). Two guards – Bigson and Seresh had plotted a coup d’etat. Mordechai, proficient in seventy languages, overheard and told the Queen. Queen Esther didn’t take credit for the information. She told the King that she got the information from Mordechai.
Esther was amply rewarded. It is for this action that she merited to be the conduit of the salvation of Israel. Because of Esther it is said, “Whoever says something in the name of its originator brings salvation to the world.”
What was really going on here? Esther certainly was a righteous woman. Can’t we assume that if she thought it better for the king to have assumed that the information came from her, then surely she would have been fully justified?
It would seem not. It would seem that even though, it may have been in the Jewish interest that Esther gain the king’s favor, there is something inherently wrong in not attributing the information to the true source. She knew this. Esther could not stoop to do something that is inherently wrong. It was for this realization – that we are but mere foot soldiers in a campaign and our primary responsibility is to follow Hashem’s bidding in what is right and wrong – she was so amply rewarded.
We now move on to Pirkei Avos 6:5. Naming the original source of the information. Avoiding plagiarism. It is in a list of one of the 48 ways in which Torah is acquired.
The Yalkut Yoseph (Kivud Av VoAim chapter 9) cites a few more sources. The Shla in Meseches Shvuos says that it is an enormous sin – and should be looked at as if one kidnapped human life.
He further cites the Sefer Chasidim (224): Whoever says something in the name of a deceased Tzaddik earns his favor and is prayed for by that Tzaddik.
Conversely, the Chida writes (Bris Olam) that if one writes a book from Torah that was stolen from others – they curse him and he dies halfway through life.