If a thief saw witnesses who were approaching with the intent to testify against him, and at that point he said: “I admit that I stole an animal, but I did not slaughter or sell it” — he pays only the principal.
As we now know, an animal thief is typically penalized with fines over and above the cost of the animal they stole. If, however, they admit in court that they have stolen the animal, these additional fines can be forgiven. This beraita teaches that this leniency applies even if the thief makes the admission only when they see witnesses approaching to testify against them — in other words, even if the admission is a last ditch effort to skirt punishment rather than a freely-offered gesture of contrition.
The Gemara, though, has a question about the phrasing of the admission in the beraita:
Why do I need the beraita to teach: And the thief said: “I admit that I stole an animal but I did not slaughter or sell it?” Let it teach that the thief said either: “I stole the animal,” or, “I slaughtered it,” or, “I sold it.”
The rabbis of the Talmud generally prefer texts to be as simple and spare as possible. If there are words that seem to be unnecessary, they will read into that addition. Here, the sugya makes meaning of the beraita’s inclusion of “I did not slaughter or sell it,” which is not even really part of the admission.
The Gemara then offers two possible reasons this phrase is included, the second of which is this:
It teaches us this halakhah itself: That once the thief says: “I stole the animal,” even if he also says: “I did not slaughter or sell it,” and later witnesses came and testified that he slaughtered or sold it, he is exempt from paying the fourfold or fivefold payment.
By admitting to the theft but claiming he did not slaughter or sell the animal, the thief guards against the possibility that witnesses will come forward to say he did those things. Even if such witnesses do come forward, he cannot be assessed the four- or fivefold penalty. Why?
The reason is that the Merciful One states in the Torah that there is a payment of four sheep for a sheep and five oxen for an ox (as per Exodus 21:37). But not a fourfold payment for an ox, nor a threefold payment for a sheep.
Once a thief has admitted to his crime paid the cost of the animal back to their original owner, they then cannot participate in the four- or fivefold fine because that fine is a package deal. Once the original cost of the animal has been paid, a later admission to killing or selling the animal would then result only in a three- or fourfold payment since there has already been some payment. But because the system of additional fines is given by the Torah as a package deal, and can’t be broken into installments, he therefore owes nothing.
These sugyot about theft, courts, witnesses and fines ask big questions about justice. Should an admission of guilt be rewarded even if it is given under the duress of forthcoming proof of guilt? Do our systems only work when all the pieces work, or can individual components stand alone? How do the laws of the Torah interact with reason and logic? These questions are applied here to the less-familiar cases of animal theft, but we encounter them throughout our lives.
Read all of Bava Kamma 75 on Sefaria.