The Prohibition of Theft
Responsibility and Respect for Ownership of Personal Property
From the Introduction by Rabbi Moshe Weiner to the section on the Prohibition of Theft, in “The Divine Code,” Part VII:
The Prohibition of Theft and its laws are unique in that they connect to almost every aspect of life, since societal people must deal with others continuously: buying, selling, and exchanging items. The focus of this command is to accept and honor another person’s needs and money. Theft in its different forms causes corruption, which can bring society to the brink of destruction. This lesson has been historically documented in the decline of many societies.
A unique point borne out from this command is that one must justly accept others as equal to oneself, honoring them and their property. This feeling can only come from the recognition that all people are equally created by the One G-d, Who creates all and provides for all. As each person is allotted an exact and appropriate portion from G-d, there is no reason to desire or take that which belongs to another. Another lesson is the importance of being truthful. One must contemplate that being truthful and just is not only necessary for the upkeep of society, but is also for one’s own sake and benefit. Truth is being correct with oneself, to recognize one’s true virtues, capacities, needs, and duties.
No one knows each individual person’s needs better than mankind’s Creator Himself, Who gave us commands and a pattern of life to be successful and maximize our potential. However, a person needs a vessel to receive this pattern of life, to accept it and manage to live with it accordingly. This vessel is truth.
One must be extremely careful about theft, since there are many details. A person naturally covets the money of others, and one’s evil inclination tricks him with various excuses for why it would be permissible. This law helps a person remain focused on G-d and His truth, and to remain truthful with oneself. One should exert extra effort to learn and understand this law and its details, in order not to transgress the prohibition even by mistake. It is also an obligation to guard one’s actions, since one is more likely to mistakenly steal when he is not taking careful notice of his actions.
The prohibition of theft is contained within the permission which G-d granted to Adam and Hava (Eve) in Genesis 2:16 to eat from the trees of the garden. This implies that if the permission had not been granted, they would have been forbidden to do so, since the property did not belong to them. This Noahide commandment is cited explicitly by Abraham in Genesis 21:25.
Some Details and Related Principles
Adapted from the Table of Contents under The Prohibition of Theft, in “The Divine Code,” Part VII:
- The prohibition of (secretive) theft and (open) robber.
- The obligation to return a stolen object, and restitution for theft.
- The prohibitions of assisting a thief or benefiting from stolen items.
- Saving a life overrides the prohibition of theft, but the amount taken should be paid back if possible; retrieving a stolen object.
- Theft through false measurements; the prohibition of cheating or misinforming another person.
- The prohibition of extortion, and forcing a purchase.
- Laws of borrowing, renting, and safeguarding an entrusted object.
- Stealing or encroaching upon real estate property.
- The prohibition of kidnapping.
- Bodily injury and damaging another person’s property.
- Delinquent debts, and withholding a worker’s wages.
- The laws pertaining to an ownerless object.
- Gambling and other activities that are similar to theft
Selected rules related to the Noahide prohibition of theft, from the text of “The Divine Code,” Part VII:
- In the Noahide Commandments, there is no difference between theft (stealing secretly) and robbery (stealing openly).
- Extortion occurs when one forces his victim to sell him an object, even at its correct value. This is also forbidden.
- If the item taken is so small that no one would be concerned about it (for example, a wood sliver taken from a fence for toothpick) it is permissible. But if many people are involved and each one takes a small amount, the owner would mind, and it forbidden.
Audio: Cases of Theft