Theft

1. Of all the categories of the Seven Universal Command­ments, the prohibition against theft may be the hardest to obey. Human history and psychology are in clear agreement with the Talmudic statement, that “Man’s soul has a craving and longing for incest and robbery.”[1] But committing theft, unlike incest, is often a simple matter in which the opportunity presents itself almost constantly. Moreover, the commandment against theft includes aspects that, without thorough study, might elude a person and be thought of as acceptable behavior. Therefore, a frequent review of the laws of theft is important.

2. Theft in the Seven Universal Commandments is one general category with many parts and is virtually identical to Torah Law, which has sixteen commandments dealing with the subject of taking what does not belong to oneself. This means that God’s will concerning theft is virtually identical whether the person involved is an Israelite or a Noahide. The only difference involves the return of a stolen object worth less than a pruta[2] (the smallest coin denomination in the times of the Talmud). If such an object is stolen from a Jew, it need not be returned, for the Israelite is willing to forgive the theft of so small an object and forego its return; but the Noahide does not forego an object worth less than a pruta, and such a stolen object must therefore be returned to him.[3]

3. The commandment prohibiting theft holds men and women equally liable in every aspect and detail.[4]

4. One is liable for punishment whether he brazenly robs in public or sneaks into a house on a moonless night.[5]

5. One is liable whether he steals money or any object or kidnaps a person. And he is liable no matter from whom he steals.

6. A Noahide who steals a beautiful woman from the enemy during time of war is liable for punishment. It is presumed that he kidnapped her and that she is a married woman.[6]

7. The Children of Noah are forbidden to engage in wars of land conquest, but if such a war does occur, and in the process a land is conquered, what the Noahide acquires of this new land belongs to him ex post facto.

8. Later authorities rule that a man who rapes or seduces a woman who is not forbidden to him is liable for punishment because he is stealing from the woman’s worth for his own personal use.[7] This judgment applies only to a man who seduces a woman, not to a woman who seduces a man. A woman is considered unable to truly seduce or rape a man, as a man must have an erection to have intercourse and therefore his involve­ment in the act is one of acceptance and volition.

9. The early Sages were in disagreement as to whether the Children of Noah were warned concerning usury and over­pricing before the giving of the Torah.[8] In either case, these commandments are both in effect today because they were given to Moses at Mount Sinai, not because God commanded Noah to follow them. (A general principle of the Seven Universal Commandments is that they are binding only because they were given on Mount Sinai.) The great sage Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, also known as Ramban), states that overcharging is clearly one of the tenets of the commandment prohibiting theft.[9] This means that a transaction whereby one is greatly overcharged is considered an illegal transaction and may be voided. Usury, the act of lending money at unfair interest rates, is in the same category and is forbidden and considered an illegal transaction.

10. In the category of overcharging is the admonition against using false weights and measures. This applies to any store­owner or salesperson, whether he is selling fish or precious stones, or measuring land for sale, as it is written, “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measuring land, in weight, or in measuring liquids” (Lev. 19:35). And inasmuch as the act of false weighing and measuring is forbidden, it is similarly forbidden to have such false weights or measuring devices in one’s possession, as it is written, “You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a great and a small” (Deut. 25:13).

11. The idea here is that since one’s sustenance comes from the hand of God, a man should earn it through honesty, not chicanery. In Talmudic times, the fair amount of profit gained was thought to be one‑sixth,[10] but since profit margins are considered somewhat relative and subjective, the fair amount remains to be determined by the norms set in each generation.

12. A Noahide is not obligated to return an object that he stole. But since he stole it, he is held accountable for the prescribed punishment in a court of law. This is according to Rashi’s opinion, which holds that when a single act warrants two punishments, the stricter punishment is enforced and the lesser one is foregone. Other authorities argue that this principle applies only to the Jew and the laws of the Torah, and that when a Noahide has stolen, he is obligated to return the stolen article to its rightful owner, despite the fact that he has incurred the death penalty.[11]

13. One may well ask why the thief, who is going to be executed anyway, should bother to return the stolen object. He could just as well leave it to his spouse or child or a friend and therefore have some indirect benefit. The explanation goes right to the heart of the intent of God’s Law, which is just and merciful at the same time. Every punishment meted out through the justice of the Noahide courts serves as an atonement, sparing the transgressor punishment in the Eternal World. This, of course, assumes that the convicted criminal repents for his transgression and returns to God before he is executed. Because of the justice of the courts, therefore, a man can transgress and still receive a share of the World to Come as a righteous person.

14. What happens then, if a man commits a crime and is not punished by the courts? Suppose there are two men, one who killed negligently but without premeditation and another who killed with malice aforethought. There were no witnesses to either crime. God will bring the two men together through Divine Providence. For instance, on a crowded street, the one who killed unintentionally might be driving a car, while the killer is crossing the street as a pedestrian. Not paying attention to what he is doing, the driver runs through a stop sign, killing the pedestrian. So what has God wrought? The murderer is killed, and the manslaughterer is now held as a man­slaughterer.[12]

15. A Noahide who strikes another Noahide transgresses the commandment against theft and is liable for punishment by the courts, for the damage he caused brought a physical and psychological loss to the person struck.[13] A Noahide who strikes an Israelite also violates the commandment of kedushat Yisrael, violating the sanctity of the Jew.[14]

16. A person is forbidden to desire the property and physical dwelling place of another as expressed by the scriptural verse, “And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house nor his field, nor his manservant nor his maidservant nor his ox nor his ass nor anything that is his” (Deut. 5:18).[15]

17. Since the Children of Noah are commanded to withhold themselves from committing theft, they are similarly com­manded concerning deterrents to that transgression, namely desire.[16] Coveting the belongings of another is in precisely the same category as desiring them, except it takes it a step further, involving action. Whereas desire remains something of the heart, covetousness presupposes that the person does something to fulfill his desire, such as plead with the owner to sell him his house or field.[17]

18. When mankind is judged each year on Rosh Hashanah (the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei), God apportions each person’s income and sustenance and all forms of material acquisitions for the coming year. Nothing a person will do can add to what he has been allotted, and no one can take away what has been given to him, as King Solomon wrote, “The blessing of the Lord is that which makes rich, and painful labor adds nothing to it” (Prov. 10:22). So, to desire what belongs to another, and all the more so to covet it, is an act that betrays a lack of faith in God, for it is said, “Who is happy? One who is satisfied with his portion.”[18]

19. One is forbidden to enter another’s property stealthily and take back one’s own object, for thereby he is acting in the manner of a thief. Instead, one should confront the other and say, “This belongs to me, I am taking it.”[19]

20. One is forbidden to add to one’s own property by surreptitiously moving the landmarks into the neighbor’s property, as it is written, “You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark” (Deut. 19:14).

21. This act of usurping one’s land through moving a landmark involves the idea of unfair competition. For example, if a person has a business in an area that will only support one business of that type, and someone moves in across the street and opens the same kind of business, this is said to be removing one’s neighor’s landmark.[20] Or today, the prevalent act of dup­licating audio or video cassettes without permission, even for one’s private use, is an act of moving your neighbor’s landmark, for one who does this denies his neighbor the right to make a living.

22. It is forbidden to withhold the salary of a worker. If one hires a worker, it is incumbent on the employer to pay the worker his wages at the conclusion of the day’s work, unless a different arrangement had been agreed upon ahead of time.[21] And it is similarly forbidden to refuse to repay a loan of money when one has the means to repay, or to refuse to return a borrowed object.[22] All these are enjoined by the verse, “You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him” (Lev. 19:13).

23. An employer who works in a field or in a restaurant is permitted to eat the fruits of the field or of the restaurant’s food as he works if it is in connection with his work. For instance, if a person harvests grapes, he is permitted to snack on the grapes as he works. Similarly, if he is a cook, he is permitted to snack on the food he prepares. But, if he merely irrigates the land on which grapes grow, his snacking on grapes is considered theft. Similarly, if he is a dishwasher in a restaurant, his snacking on the restaurant’s food is considered theft. Even in permissible cases, the employee may snack only as he works. If he loads up a basket and takes the food home to feed himself or his family, it is theft.[23]

24. If a person steals anything of worth (more than a pruta) and then another steals it from him, both transgress the commandment prohibiting theft.


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b

[2] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57a

[4] Encyclopedia Talmudica, The Children of Noah, volume 3, page 348

[5] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57b

[7] Minhat Hinnukh, Commandment 35

[8] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 70b, Tosefos, “What is this, usury?”

[9] Gen. 34:13, commentary of Ramban (Nachmanides)

[10] Mishnah Baba Metzia, 4:3

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 71b, Tosefos, “The Sons of Noah are…”

[12] Exod. 21:13, commentary of Rashi, “But God caused it to come to hand…”

[13] Gen. 34:13, commentary of Ramban; Encyclopedia Talmudica, The Children of Noah, volume 3, page 257

[14] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 10, law 6

[15] The Seven Laws of Noah, Lichtenstein, page 22

[16] Sefer HaHinnukh, Commandment 424

[17] The Seven Laws of Noah, Lichtenstein, page 24

[18] Chapters of the Fathers, 4:1

[19] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kamma 27b

[20] Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, chapter 156, laws 1‑7

[21] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[22] Gen. 34:13, commentary of Ramban

[23] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

 


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b

[2] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57a

[4] Encyclopedia Talmudica, The Children of Noah, volume 3, page 348

[5] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57b

[7] Minhat Hinnukh, Commandment 35

[8] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 70b, Tosefos, “What is this, usury?”

[9] Gen. 34:13, commentary of Ramban (Nachmanides)

[10] Mishnah Baba Metzia, 4:3

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 71b, Tosefos, “The Sons of Noah are…”

[12] Exod. 21:13, commentary of Rashi, “But God caused it to come to hand…”

[13] Gen. 34:13, commentary of Ramban; Encyclopedia Talmudica, The Children of Noah, volume 3, page 257

[14] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 10, law 6

[15] The Seven Laws of Noah, Lichtenstein, page 22

[16] Sefer HaHinnukh, Commandment 424

[17] The Seven Laws of Noah, Lichtenstein, page 24

[18] Chapters of the Fathers, 4:1

[19] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kamma 27b

[20] Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, chapter 156, laws 1‑7

[21] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[22] Gen. 34:13, commentary of Ramban

[23] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b

[2] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57a

[4] Encyclopedia Talmudica, The Children of Noah, volume 3, page 348

[5] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57b

[7] Minhat Hinnukh, Commandment 35

[8] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 70b, Tosefos, “What is this, usury?”

[9] Gen. 34:13, commentary of Ramban (Nachmanides)

[10] Mishnah Baba Metzia, 4:3

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 71b, Tosefos, “The Sons of Noah are…”

[12] Exod. 21:13, commentary of Rashi, “But God caused it to come to hand…”

[13] Gen. 34:13, commentary of Ramban; Encyclopedia Talmudica, The Children of Noah, volume 3, page 257

[14] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 10, law 6

[15] The Seven Laws of Noah, Lichtenstein, page 22

[16] Sefer HaHinnukh, Commandment 424

[17] The Seven Laws of Noah, Lichtenstein, page 24

[18] Chapters of the Fathers, 4:1

[19] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kamma 27b

[20] Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, chapter 156, laws 1‑7

[21] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

[22] Gen. 34:13, commentary of Ramban

[23] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, chapter 9, law 9

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