Cash registers were invented to counteract employees' temptation to steal;  a "Shabbat box" can help keep mobile devices out of our hands on Shabbat.
Cash registers were invented to counteract employees' temptation to steal; a "Shabbat box" can help keep mobile devices out of our hands on Shabbat.

How the cash register figures into a soulful, joyous Shabbat

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17

Back in the 1880s, a man named John Patterson ran a small supply store for coal miners in Dayton, Ohio. The store had few competitors and many customers, but — for some reason — it struggled to make money.

Eventually, Patterson learned why: His employees were stealing from him.

In those days, employee theft was a common problem. Receipts were kept in an open drawer and could easily be altered or discarded. There were no video cameras to review behavior, and no software to track transactions.

Unless you were willing to constantly hover over your employees, it was difficult to prevent theft. It was part of the cost of doing business.

As Patterson mulled his predicament, he came across an advertisement for a new invention called Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier — the first version of the cash register. The machine automatically locked the cash and receipts inside after each transaction.

Patterson bought two for $50 each, a significant sum at the time.

Overnight, employee theft ended.

In the next six months, Patterson’s business went from losing money to making $5,000 in profit — the equivalent of more than $100,000 today. As it soared from deep in the red to wildly profitable, it became a remarkable turnaround story.

Patterson was so impressed with the cash register that he changed businesses, buying the rights to Ritty’s invention and opening the National Cash Register Company.

Ten years later, the company had more than 1,000 employees and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful businesses in America.

The genius of the cash register was that it made ethical behavior easy, by making stealing difficult. Rather than trying to change the motivations of his employees, Patterson made one change in the work environment to make better behavior automatic. By removing temptation, his machines made doing the right thing the norm rather than the exception.

Our Torah portion this week speaks a great deal about breaking bad habits and creating healthy and holy ones. And this story teaches an important lesson that applies to all of our behaviors.

A great way to break a bad habit is to make it difficult to do. And a great way to create a good habit is to make it happen almost automatically, so you don’t have to struggle to do it. To make a good habit or mitzvah automatic, look for one-time actions that require a little bit of effort upfront but create increasing value over time. The goal is to get in the right groove. For example:

If you’re feeling motivated to get in shape, get a gym membership and pay ahead of time.

Remove the television from your bedroom.

Delete games and social media apps from your phone.

Affix a mezuzah on your door.

These actions require an effort once, but they set you up to stay healthy, get better sleep and live a richer Jewish life. They make achieving these goals sustainable.

Here is one more example, especially relevant to the busyness and breakneck pace of life in Silicon Valley:

Would you like more quality time with your family and your soul but struggle to keep Shabbat? There is a one-time action that will lock in a joyous Shabbat, and restrict behaviors that ruin it:

Make a Shabbat box.

In preparation for setting aside time to celebrate Shabbat — whether it is an hour or the full day — put things in the box that you do not want to use. Pens, wallets, cellphone, iPad, laptop. On Friday, have someone stand at the door with the Shabbat box, and as people enter the house for the evening meal, ask them to put in anything that should not be taken into sacred space.

Then, stripped of your tools and machines, light the Shabbat candles, make the blessing and allow the weekday worries to melt away. Then you can truly spend time together and celebrate.

The cash register box transformed Patterson’s life. And a Shabbat box will transform yours. With distraction locked away, we will be able to see the inspiration and joy that are possible. Instead of wasting time, we’ll savor time together.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.