229. Stick ‘Em Up!: The prohibition against robbing by force

In Mitzvah #224, we discussed geneivah, the prohibition against stealing with stealth. This mitzvah addresses gezeilah, which is robbing openly, through force or intimidation.

The reason for this mitzvah, aside from the personal property rights that we discussed previously, is that permitting or overlooking such robbery would foster a concept of “might makes right.” If I’m bigger and stronger than you, I can just take away your property. It’s mine now – that is, until someone bigger And stronger than me comes along! Clearly, this would be no way to run a civilized society. In fact, Rashi on Genesis 6:13 points out that robbery was one of the things that led to the breakdown in society in the time of Noah.

The prohibition against robbery is very severe. It applies even to something the value of a perutah (a small coin, like a penny). One may not rob anyone – not a Jew, not a non-Jew, not a heretic, nobody. If one did rob someone, he must return what he stole (see Mitzvah #130). As with a thief, one may not purchase from a known robber, as doing so just encourages him to go out and “acquire” more merchandise.

Now that we’ve discussed both thieves and robbers, the question is, “Which is worse?” According to the Talmud in Baba Kama (79b), a goniff, who steals with stealth, is worse than a gazlan, who robs by force. The robber openly defies both man (his victim) and God. He’s brazen and he doesn’t care who sees him. The thief, however, sneaks around, hoping not to get caught. By hoping to avoid his victim, he shows a fear of man even though he’s acting in full sight of God. Because his theft has this additional aspect of disrespecting God, a goniff is subject to additional penalties. (Refer back to Mitzvah #224.)

This mitzvah applies to both men and women in all times and places. It is discussed in the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin (57a), Baba Kama (79b), in the last two chapters of Baba Metzia, and elsewhere. It is codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Choshen Mishpat 359. This prohibition is #245 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #35 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be fulfilled today as listed in the Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar of the Chofetz Chaim.