Rabbi Meir Orlian
Mr. Schindler worked in the upscale office of a high-tech company. For the benefit of the employees and clients, the office had a well-stocked kitchenette that contained a state-of-the-art coffee machine as well as pastries, fruit and packaged snacks.
Mr. Schindler often worked overtime, and frequently would not leave until after 6:30 p.m. On his way out, his stomach would remind him that he hadn’t eaten for a few hours and still had an hour-long ride home. To placate his stomach, Mr. Schindler would take a pastry and a fruit with him when he left work, and eat them on the way home.
One day, a coworker, Mr. Lichter, also stayed to finish some work. As they were leaving, Mr. Schindler wrapped up a pastry and fruit and put them in his bag. “Would you like to take a snack with you?” he offered Mr. Lichter.
“Thank you,” Mr. Lichter said. “I had something earlier in the day, but I’m hesitant to take food home with me.”
“Why?” asked Mr. Schindler. “What’s the problem?”
“The refreshments are meant for us to eat while on the job,” Mr. Lichter answered. “I don’t think people are supposed to take them home.”
“I’m not exactly taking them home,” replied Mr. Schindler. “I worked a long day, and I’m hungry. You think the boss would prefer that I take time off toward the end of the day to eat in the office? And I’m not the only one who takes food for the way home.”
“I’m not sure it’s right,” said Mr. Lichter. “I know that even when the Torah allows a worker to eat from his employer’s vineyard, it says that he may not take fruit with him.”
“I never really considered the issue,” replied Mr. Schindler. “I’ll ask Rabbi Dayan.”
May Mr. Schindler take a snack from the office for the way home from work?
The Torah (Devarim 23:25-26) entitles a worker to eat of his employer’s grapes while working in a vineyard, but he may not put aside fruit for later. This permission to eat is restricted to agricultural work, however, and does not apply to a worker performing other work – even if food-related, such as a worker in a dairy or grocery (B.M. 87a; C.M. 337:1-2).
Nevertheless, the Mishnah (B.M. 83a) mentions the common practice in certain places to provide meals or snacks for workers, even those not involved in agricultural work, and concludes that the rule is: “In accordance with the local common practice.” This is a significant principle in employer-employee relations (C.M. 331:2).
In an office setting, therefore, the question of whether a worker may take the office food does not relate to the Torah’s provision that a worker in the vineyard may eat, but rather to the local common practice. It is uncommon nowadays for office workers to be served meals, but it is accepted that most workplaces provide at least coffee and tea and a water cooler.
If the company also provides refreshments, whether or not it is acceptable for workers to take snacks for the way home depends on the common practice and the understanding they have with their employer. If allowing the worker to take food with him will enable him to work more efficiently toward the end of the day, that might be a factor in permitting the practice. However, if workers routinely take snacks home against the express wishes of the company owners, that would not make the practice valid, since a practice to steal does not constitute an accepted common practice. (See C.M. 337:11; Pischei Choshen, Sechirus 7:.)
It makes no difference whether the company is owned by Jews or not, since for an employee to eat what he is not entitled to is considered theft, and theft from a non-Jew is not allowed (Sma 337:38; C.M. 348:2).
“Thus,” concluded Rabbi Dayan, “whether Mr. Schindler may take a snack for the ride home depends on the common practice and the understanding with the company. If the practice is unclear, he should clarify with an authorized supervisor.”