Theft, Robbery and Misappropriations: Variations on a Theme

Stealing is repeatedly prohibited in the Bible. As the prohibition contained in the Ten Commandments [1] appears in the context of capital offenses, such as murder and adultery, it has been held to constitute the capital offense of man-stealing. The prohibitions of theft and robbery [2] which appear in the context of fraudulent and oppressive dealings with men, were held to constitute the non-capital offense of larcency or chattels.[3]

The differentiation between theft and robbery is the same as in civil law; theft is committed clandestinely, robbery openly.[4] While the Halakha does not concern itself with the thief/robber's motive, it does differentiate in a most unusual way between theft and robbery. Writes Talmud scholar and translator Adin Steinsaltz:

Why is the Torah more severe with a thief than with a robber?
Why is the Torah more severe with a thief than with a robber?

A thief is required to pay double for the animal he stole; and if he has slaughtered or sold it, four- or fivefold. The robber is merely expected to repay or restore what he has taken. This is the question in the Talmud (BT Baba Kamma 79b) which the disciples of Rabbi Yonahan ben Zakkai pose to their teacher, and this is his explanation:

"A robber accords equal lack of deference to the slave [his victim] and to the Master, whereas a thief does not accord to the Master the deference he accords to the slave. For the thief acts, if one dare say such a thing, as though the Eye above does not see and the Ear above does not hear...." (read complete Hebrew)

"The thief sometimes pays a fine, but the robber who takes openly and by force is merely obliged to restore the object or its equivalent in cash. The talmudic explanation is intriguing: the robber is preferable to the thief since he acts openly, and his attitude toward God, in transgressing against his commandments and committing a robbery, is equal to his attitude toward his fellow men, from whom he steals only, without fear and shame. The thief, on the other hand, demonstrates that he fears men more than he fears God, since he hides himself from his fellow men but not from the Almighty; he therefore deserves to be fined."[5]

You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully of falsely with one another…. You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. (Leviticus 19: 11, 13)

Criminal misappropriations, to be punished by punitive payment, are classified in the Talmud as falling into seven categories:

  • Fraud — that is genevat da'at: stealing another man's mind:
    "abbi Meir used to say, 'A man should not urge his friend to eat with him if he knows very well that he won't. Nor should he offer him any gifts if he knows that he won't accept. He should not make believe that it is for his guest's sake that he is opening casks of wine [in his honor], when in fact he intends to turn. them over to a shopkeeper to be sold… And he should not say to his guest "anoint yourself with oil" when he knows that the oil jar is empty.[6]
  • Stealing chicken's by moonlightStealing by way of falsifying *weights and measure.
  • Stealing things which are useless or the use of which is forbidden to their owner, which is not punishable.
  • Misappropriating bills, lands or consecrated property — for which only restitution has to be made.
  • Stealing chattels, for which the penalty is double payment [7].
  • Stealing and selling or slaughtering oxen or sheep, for which the penalty is four or fivefold [8].
  • Man-stealing for which punishment is death [9].

The double restitution has been explained as imposing on the thief the loss he intended his victim to lose (while also returning its value to the thief [10] while the quadruple or quintuple penalty is imposed on he who not only steals, but attempts to benefit further from his theft by selling or slaughtering the animal he has stolen.[11]

Hassagat Gevul — Encroachment

The prohibition against hassagat gevul (overstepping of bounds) deals with another type of theft: the encroachment on another's land with the intent of enlarging one's own parcel or the encroachment upon other's economic and property rights. The biblical prohibition is derived from the verse "You shall not remove your neighbor's landmark, which they of old time have set, in your inheritance which you shall inherit, in the land that he Lord your God gives you to possess"[12]

When the economy moved from an agrarian, land-based economy to a commercial, capital-based one during in the late Talmudic and post-Talmudic period, the rabbis expanded the prohibition to encompass other forms of improper economic encroachments, and to protect monopolies purchased from the authorities at considerable expense; the employment contracts of teachers, rabbis, and ritual slaughterers; residential leases; and copyright.


[1] (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17 [back]
[2] Lev:19:11,13 [back]
[3] Mekh. Yitro 8; Sanh. 86a; BM 61b; Yad, Genevah 1:1 [back]
[4] Yad, Genevah 1:3 [back]
[5] Adin Steinsaltz, The Essential Talmud, Copyright ©1976 by Bantam Books, Inc. [back]
[6] Hullin 94a [back]
[7] Exodus 22:8 [back]
[8] Ex. 21:37 [back]
[9] Mekh. Mishpatim 13; Tsef., BK 7:8-17 [back]
[10] Yad, Genevah 1:4-5 [back]
[11] Tosef., BK 7:2) [back]
[12] Deut. 19:14 [back]

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