Jews and Stealing

The ways we justify theft cannot free us of its corrupting influence.

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Reprinted with permission from A Book of Life (Schocken Books).

"Rabbi Yohanan said: When a person robs his fellow even the value of a perutah [penny], it is as though he had taken his life away from him, as it is said, 'So are the ways of everyone that is greedy of gain, which takes away the life of the owners thereof' (Proverbs 1:19)" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 119a).

The Torah instructs us not to steal or deal dishonestly (Leviticus 19:35-36). Most people would affirm that not stealing and not cheating are important moral principles and, if asked, would deny engaging in such practices. Yet the tradition realizes that it is not grand theft but the category of petty theft that involves the average person. As Rabbi Yohanan says above, in the eyes of the tradition there is not such thing as petty theft.


The consequences of theft are twofold: one on the victim, and one on the thief. The victim is deprived of something that was hers. The thief is burdened with the knowledge that he has done something wrong. The thief then enters a world (even if only temporarily) of fear of discovery and of corrupting self-justification.

"It's Only a Penny"

One justification is to say that it is "only" a penny--that is, to posit that what was stolen is not valuable or important to its owner. In truth, we seldom have an accurate idea of a thing's value or importance to its owner. Related to this justification are the claims that the owner is rich and therefore the item won't be missed and perhaps that the thief deserves it more.

How often have you heard someone say that it is okay to do x because "they" are a large corporation? Whom does it hurt to use a cable descrambler in order to get pay TV channels for free? This justification misses the point. Whether the one being cheated is an individual or a corporation, as the tradition points out, any theft is wrong.

"Everybody Does It"

Jewish tradition is also concerned with the impact of theft on society. Taken together, small petty thefts create a social norm accepting or even approving of such activities. This is the "everybody does it" syndrome. As members of such a society, we participate in stealing by indirectly supporting it.

I remember unloading our truck of household goods when we moved to Manhattan and being approached by someone who wanted to sell me a color TV of unknown provenance. The tradition understands the consequences of buying stolen goods: The end result is a general corruption of the social fabric.

Justifying Theft Requires "Othering" the Victim

The tradition is also concerned with the welfare of the thief. Theft is a corrupting process supported by two factors: escaping punishment and justifying thievery. Certainly, one deterrent to stealing is the fear of being caught. First, you steal a penny, then, if you get away with it, you think it is "safe" to steal more. The second factor is the thief's need to create a justification to explain why it is permissible to steal. One justification, already mentioned, is that the one being robbed is so wealthy that the thing being stolen will not be missed. There are many other justifications, of course, but they all rely on a process of "othering" the intended victim.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.