Jews and Stealing

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

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For the rabbis in premodern times, the "other" was non-Jews, hence they taught:

"Torah was given only to hallow God's great name, as it is said, 'God said until me: You are My servant, Israel, through whom I shall be glorified' (Isaiah 49:3). [By your deeds, you will glorify me among all people.] Hence, the sages said, a person should keep away from dishonesty in dealing, whether with Jew or Gentile; indeed with anyone in the marketplace. Besides, a person who steals from a Gentile will in the end steal from a Jew; a person who cheats a Gentile  will in the end cheat a Jew; a person who swears [falsely] to a Gentile will in the end swear [falsely] to a Jew; a person who acts deceitfully toward a Gentile will in the end act deceitfully toward a Jew….." (Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu).

One understanding of this text would suggest that it is worse to steal from a Jew than from a Gentile, but it can also be demonstrating how we allow ourselves to cross moral boundaries by creating distinctions. By treating the victim as "other," theft is easier to justify. If "they" are not the same as "you," then they are lesser an you are more deserving.

Obviously, once you begin to steal you are on a slippery slope. The tradition therefore teaches that there is no justification for stealing, not even to right a wrong. Thus:

"Once, four hundred jars of wine belonging to Rav Huna turned sour. The sages came to visit him and said, 'Let the master examine his [past] actions.' He asked them, 'Am I suspect in your eyes?' They replied, 'Is the Holy One suspect of imposing judgment without justice?' He said to them, 'If anyone has heard something against me, let him speak up.' They replied, 'We have heard that the master does not give his tenant his [lawful share of] vine shoots.' Rav Huna replied, 'Does he leave any of them for me? He steals them all!' They said to him, 'That is exactly what the proverb says: 'Even if you steal [what is your own] from a thief, you are also a bit of a thief.' He said to them, 'From now on, I pledge myself to give them to him.' Some say that then and there the vinegar turned back into wine" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b).

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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.