THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Yitro – פרשת יתרו
January 26, 2019 – כ שבט תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Richard Hochman in memory of Abraham Albert Hochman Z”L.
Thou Shalt not Steal
The eighth utterance of the Decalogue is “Thou shalt not steal (Exodus 20:12 JPS translation).” A ban on stealing is a basic legislative building block of a morally healthy civilization. Appropriately, the rule was codified among the Seven Noahide Laws binding upon all humanity (Sanhedrin 56a). The sages recognized the odiousness of rampant thievery in their assertion that the Generation of the Flood transgressed every rule but was not condemned to be destroyed until it flouted the laws protecting private property (Tanhuma Noah 4). The people of Nineveh, upon being chastised by the prophet and warned of the dire punishment soon to be meted out against them, turned from their evil ways and relinquished the stolen property in their possession (Jonah 3:8).
Surprisingly, the sages did not interpret the seemingly straightforward words לא תגנב as forbidding the theft of property. Instead, they understood the Decalogue’s eighth utterance to be a ban on kidnapping.
The Halakhic Midrash provides an exegetical basis for the sages’ limited reading (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Yitro Ba-Hodesh 5; Sanhedrin 86a). Scripture sets forth this punishment for kidnapping: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death (Exodus 21:16).” In rabbinic thinking, Scripture does not impose punishment unless there is an additional verse warning against the violation of the law in question. Where is the Scriptural admonition not to kidnap? The two verses that could possibly serve this purpose are Exodus 20:12 and “You shall not steal; neither shall you deal falsely, nor lie one to another (Leviticus 19:11).” Assuming that, of the two verses, one forbids the theft of property while the other forbids kidnapping, the sages argued that each verse could be properly explicated through a contextual reading. Exodus 20:12, which links stealing with the heinous capital crimes of murder and adultery, must refer to kidnapping since, of the many things that one could steal, it is only the theft of a person that is punishable by death. In contrast, Leviticus 19:11 appears in a pericope focused on commercial law and does not address capital crimes. A subsequent verse, “Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbor nor rob him (19:13),” makes clear that this chapter in Leviticus concerns the unlawful taking or withholding of money or property, not of persons.
Professor Jonathan Magonet suggests that in interpreting Exodus 20:12 as they did, the sages were motivated by three considerations: 1) The seeming redundancy of Leviticus 19:11; 2) the unambiguous reference to kidnapping (Exodus 21:16) in the “Covenant Collection,” which is considered by many scholars to be an ancient explication of the Decalogue; and 3) the assumption that all the utterances of the Decalogue address capital matters. Further support for the sages’ reading of לא תגנב can be adduced from Joseph’s words to Pharaoh’s butler: “For indeed I was stolen away גנב גנבתי from the land of the Hebrews (Genesis 40:15).” Yet, as Magonet notes, Biblical redundancies abound and do not always necessitate a departure from the plain meaning; the Covenant Collection also addresses financial matters; and not all the utterances of the Decalogue can be neatly associated with capital crimes.
The earliest interpreters of the Pentateuch likely understood the Decalogue to admonish the Israelites not to steal anything, whether movable property or physical persons. The eighth century BCE prophet condemned the Northern Kingdom of Israel for its moral decay. “Swearing and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery! They break all bounds (Hosea 4:2).” By linking killing, stealing, and adultery, as did the Decalogue, and yet without delimiting the definition of stealing to the specific crime of kidnapping, it seems clear that Hosea understood לא תגנב in its broadest sense. A century and a half later, Jeremiah, too, paraphrased the Decalogue in his condemnation of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. “Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye have not known (Jeremiah 7:9)?” Again, it here appears that stealing was meant in the conventional sense.
The Septuagint’s rendering of Exodus 20:12 contains a Greek word connoting embezzlement, thievery, or pilfering; LXX gives no indication that the Pentateuch here meant to ban kidnapping. Pseudo-Jonathan reads לא תגנב as an admonition that Jews not associate with thieves, and warns that famine comes upon the Holy Land as punishment for widespread thievery. Philo reads Exodus 20:12 as a warning not to commit even the pettiest larceny. Delving into human psychology, Philo notes that a cavalier attitude toward minor crimes will lead a person down the path towards the worst moral outrages. “The third commandment of the second table of five is not to steal… Let everyone then learn from his earliest infancy, never privily to steal anything that belongs to anyone else, not even though it may be the merest trifle, because the habit, when it becomes inveterate, is more powerful than nature; and small things, if they are not checked, increase and grow, becoming gradually greater and greater till they reach a formidable magnitude (De Decalogo XXVI 135-137).”
Ibn Ezra, who was bold enough to interpret Scripture according to its plain sense even in cases when the Midrashic tradition was otherwise, claimed that לא תגנב connotes the stealthy pilfering of someone else’s money. He added that “thou shalt not steal” also forbids kidnapping, financial fraud, and even general deception the likes of which Absalom perpetrated on Amnon.
As someone who reads the Hebrew Bible with an appreciation for its bold and broad moral statements, I am discomfited by the attempt to reduce the scope of “Thou shalt not steal.” To be sure, the sages in no way denied that basic thievery is anything but abhorrent and criminal. Still, in my view it is more reassuring to think that in the Decalogue — words of direct Divine Revelation — God denounced stealing in its broadest sense. When individual Jews are accused (often fairly and accurately) of engaging in acts of financial fraud, a clergyman needs to be able to turn around from the pulpit, face the ark, point to the decorative Tablets of the Covenant above the ark, and exclaim “Thou shalt not steal.”