By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

About a week ago, a junior at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science was taking the U.S. History Regents exam. On his lap, during the test, was a cellphone. A proctor spotted him texting and looking at his iPhone. The young man was taken to the dean’s office and asked to unlock his cellphone. He did.

But he also, apparently, did something else. He started deleting any incriminating evidence, according to an eyewitness who told the original proctor who had caught him.

This is a violation of Department of Education protocol, because only school officials may handle confiscated cell phones, not the kid himself.

The Department of Education officials insisted that the exam was not compromised, and that it was an “isolated incident.”

“No items were deleted,” a spokeswoman for the DOE said. “There is no evidence that any texts were sent during the exam.”

There are two other cases of cheating in the news as well. It seems that ten Philadelphia police recruits resigned last week after having admitted to attempting to cheat on an open-book test on vehicle-code law. Finally, a 70-year-old marathon runner in California was caught cheating on the marathon and stripped of his previous titles. He was filmed climbing back into the race. When he explained that he had left temporarily to attend to his needs next to a wall, a Google Maps search showed that there was no such wall anywhere near where he had reentered the roadway.

It seems that cheating is rather prevalent in our society. The school cheating happened at an elite New York institution. The police cheating was done by people who are charged with upholding the law. And the marathon runner was a doctor.

Although all this is quite disconcerting, our question is what the halachah is here. May a proctor turn a blind eye to cheating? May administrators allow a violation of protocol? What are the prohibitions involved in cheating?

View Of Rav Feinstein, zt’l

In a letter dated in the summer of 1980 (the letter is found in Igros Moshe Choshen Mishpat Vol. II #30) to Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Lefrak, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, writes that the issue of cheating actually goes in the realm of out-and-out theft. He begins by saying that cheating is a violation of dina d’malchusa, a violation of the law of the land. It is also a violation of Torah law. It is not just geneivas da’as, misleading others, which itself is forbidden, as Shmuel has stated in Chullin 94a. It is a violation of lying and is not listed among the three things upon which one may alter the truth (see Bava Metzia 23b). Cheating also causes a general distrust, where the individual who cheats causes others not to be trusted as well, and it breeds laziness, as people look to take the easy way out instead of studying.

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein’s View

The underlying issues were posed recently to Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, shlita, and he responded with four underlying halachic concepts (see Vavei HaAmudim Volume 69 #9).

Firstly, there is the matter of theft from the future employer. When a person falsifies his or her record, the employer assumes that the employee had earned his or her education honestly.

Secondly, the future employer does not wish to hire a dishonest person or a liar. He or she wishes to employ someone who is honest, a person of integrity. Rav Zilberstein writes that if a person cheated on tests, he or she must inform a future employer of it.

A third point that Rav Zilberstein cites is from his father-in-law, Rav Elyashiv, zt’l. Rav Elyashiv ruled that cheating on a state exam is not just stealing from the government; it is stealing from each and every taxpayer. It undermines the system put in place by the state and is thus considered theft from the people.

A fourth point is that nothing good ever comes from such behavior, and it desensitizes a person to cheating and to the abuse of all that is good and moral. The grandfather cheating on a test will undermine the moral fiber of his future home. The son will end up rationalizing behaviors where one will steal from the government or cheat on taxes. Finally, the grandson will end up actually stealing from other people, with Ponzi schemes and other means of fraudulently obtaining the hard-earned savings of others. People do not realize that when they cheat, they are cheating themselves by chipping at the foundations of their own morality—which will lead to a child or grandchild in jail.

Finally, a last point. Those in charge of proctoring the exam are paid to do just that. If they overlook it or allow it to be covered up, then they are stealing from their employer and must return their own salaries.

This incident is not the first of its kind. In a major cheating scandal at specialized Stuyvesant High School in June 2012, some 71 high-school juniors were caught using cellphones to exchange answers on Regents exams through text messages.

It must be stressed that it is the view of the greatest of our rabbis that such activity is strictly forbidden by Torah law and should never be rationalized. Indeed, Rav Moshe Feinstein concludes his letter that it is impossible to believe that anyone affiliated with a Torah institution could ever engage in such activity.

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com. Read more of Rabbi Hoffman’s articles at 5TJT.com.

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