224. Cat Burglar: The prohibition against stealing with stealth

You shall not steal… (Leviticus 19:11)

In Hebrew, there are two words for theft: geneivah and gezeilah. This ought not surprise us, as in English we can say rob, steal, etc. While we might use those terms fairly interchangeably, we certainly know the difference between a burglar and a mugger. A burglar might break into one’s home in the dead of night, while a mugger is more likely to accost a person in an alley. This mitzvah deals with geneivah, the act of burglary (from which we get the word “goniff”). Mitzvah #229 will deal with gezeilah, the act of stealing by force (like a mugger). (Keep in mind that the “do not steal” in the Ten Commandments refers to kidnapping – see Mitzvah #36.)

This is one of those mitzvos whose basis is self-evident. Every society recognizes individual property and for people to just take what they want from one another leads to chaos. It is forbidden even to take something “as a joke,” with the intention to return it later.

The penalty for stealing is to pay double what he stole (see Exodus 22:3). In certain cases of stealing livestock, the thief might have to pay back four or five times what he stole (Exodus 21:37). If a thief cannot pay back for his offense, he was indentured to work off his debt (Exodus 22:2).

It is forbidden to buy from a thief, because doing so just encourages him in his illicit activities (Talmud Baba Kama 118b). This applies even when we merely suspect something might be stolen and all the more so when we know it to be stolen!

This mitzvah applies to both men and women in all times and places. It is discussed in the Talmud in the seventh chapter of tractate Baba Kama. It is codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Choshen Mishpat 348. This prohibition is #244 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #34 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be fulfilled today as listed in the Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar of the Chofetz Chaim.