1. Theft is a Biblical sin meaning to forcefully take an item from its owner without his permission. The Torah commands in Leviticus about this: “Don’t rob your friend and don’t steal.” (Leviticus 19)
2. Someone who steals must return it to the owner. This is also from Leviticus: “And he should return the stolen item he stole.” (Leviticus 5,23) in the time of the Temple there were certain times the thief would have to return the stolen item, add a fifth to the payment and bring a guilt offering called the “guilt offering of theft”.
3. Someone who borrows without permission is called a thief according to our sages. This means a person who takes an item without permission even if he intends to return it to the owner still stole it. Under certain circumstances there are rare exceptions like using someone else’s tallit or Tefillin since people are happy when their items are used for mitzvoth.
4. Theft from the public is more severe than theft from the individual for you can repay and appease them but it’s basically impossible to repay and appease the public if you stole from them. According to the Talmud thieves from the public include shepherds that take their sheep to graze on the fields of others, tax collectors who take more than required by law which have a difficult repentance since they don’t know who to give back to and how much.
5. Despite this difficulty our sages suggest to repay those who you do remember and with the remaining funds do things to benefit the public since one of the people you wronged may benefit from it. (Baba Kama 94b) This law is also the rule as brought down in the Jewish code of law. (Choshen Mishpat 366, 2)
6. In another place in the ‘Shuchan Aruch’ (Jewish Code of Law) it says that a merchant that cheated his customers in weights and measures cannot do a proper repentance. (ibid 231, 19) The ‘Sma’ (a law commentator) explains that “though there is some merit in providing benefit to the public it’s not sufficient for a total repair of the sin since these people didn’t get their money back. In a way cheating customers is more severe than serious sins even idolatry and adultery for which there is repentance through appeasing the grieved party together with deep regret and confession and self-flagellation.”
7. Despite the difficulty, the Aruch Hashulchan writes many words of encouragement to a person who wants to repent for stealing from the public: “When he provides for the needs of the public G-d will orchestrate it that each one of those he stole from or their heirs will benefit the value of the theft and will forgive him and one who comes to purify will merit divine assistance.”
8. An example of ‘public needs’ a person can do for repentance is: digging wells for public use since everyone needs this and the chance of benefitting the person stolen from is great.
9. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan writes in Ahavat Chessed (loving kindness) “It is written in the name of the Shelah that benefitting the public can be through buying Torah books for study halls or synagogues used by the public.
10. Rabbi Moses Feinstein ruled that a person trying to benefit the public for repentance should not make it as a public donation where he will actually be honored for it. This donation of books should be done anonymously.