Path of the Righteous Gentile: Theft
1. Of all the categories of the Seven Laws of Noah, the prohibition against theft may be the most difficult to obey. Human history and psychology are in clear agreement with the Talmudic statement, that “Man’s soul has a craving and longing for incest and robbery.”1 But unlike incest, committing theft is often a simple matter in which the opportunity presents itself almost constantly. Moreover, the commandment prohibiting theft includes aspects that without careful Torah study might elude a person and be considered acceptable behavior. Therefore, a frequent review of the laws of theft is important.
2. The commandment prohibiting theft that was given to the Children of Noah is a single comprehensive law with many parts and details. It is virtually identical to the sixteen separate commandments dealing with theft that were given to the Children of Israel. This means that God’s will concerning theft is essentially the same whether the person involved is an Israelite or a Noahide.2 The only difference involves the return of a stolen object worth less than a pruta,3 the smallest coin denomination in the times of the Talmud.4 If such an object is stolen from a Jew, it need not be returned, for the Israelite is presumed to forgive the theft of so small an object and forego its return; but the Noahide does not forego an object worth less than a pruta, and such a stolen object must therefore be returned to him.5
3. The commandment prohibiting theft holds men and women equally liable in every aspect and detail.6
4. One is liable for punishment whether he brazenly robs in public or sneaks into a house on a moonless night.7
5. One is liable to punishment by a court of law whether he steals money or any object or kidnaps a person. And he is liable no matter from whom he steals.
6. A Noahide who steals a beautiful woman from the enemy during time of war is liable for punishment. It is presumed that he kidnapped her and that she is a married woman.8
7. The Children of Noah are forbidden to engage in wars of land conquest, but if such a war does occur, and in the process a land is conquered, what the Noahide acquires of this new land belongs to him ex post facto.
8. Later authorities rule that a man who rapes or seduces a woman who is not forbidden to him is liable for punishment because he is stealing from the woman’s worth for his own personal use.9
This judgment applies only to a man who seduces a woman, not to a woman who seduces a man. A woman is considered unable to truly seduce or rape a man, as a man must have an erection to have intercourse and therefore his involvement in the act is one of acceptance and volition.
9. The early Sages of Israel were in disagreement as to whether the Children of Noah were forbidden concerning usury and overpricing before the giving of the Torah.10 In either case, both of these commandments are in effect today because they were given to Moses at Mount Sinai, not because God commanded Noah to follow them. It is a general principle of the Seven Universal Commandments is that they are binding only because they were given on Mount Sinai. The great Jewish sage Nachmanides11 states that overcharging is clearly one of the tenets of the commandment prohibiting theft.12
This means that a transaction whereby one is greatly overcharged is considered an illegal transaction and may be voided. Usury, the act of lending money at unfair interest rates, is in the same category. Usury is forbidden as an illegal transaction.
10. The category of overcharging includes the admonition against using false weights and measures. This applies to any storeowner or salesperson, whether he is selling fish or precious stones, or measuring land for sale, as it is written, “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measuring land, in weight, or in measuring liquids (Leviticus 19:35).”
Inasmuch as the act of falsely weighing and measuring is forbidden, it is similarly forbidden to have such false weights or measuring devices in one’s possession, as it is written, “You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a great and a small (Deuteronomy 25:13).”
Since sustenance comes from the hand of God, a man should earn it through honesty, not trickery. In Talmudic times, the fair amount of profit gained was thought to be one-sixth,13 but since profit margins are considered somewhat relative and subjective, the fair amount remains to be determined by the norms set in each generation.
12. A Noahide is not obligated to return an object that he stole. But since he stole it, he is held accountable for the prescribed punishment in a court of law. This is according to Rashi’s opinion, which holds that when a single act warrants two punishments, the stricter punishment is enforced and the lesser one is foregone. Other authorities argue that this principle applies only to an Israelite and the laws of the Torah, and that when a Noahide has stolen, he is obligated to return the stolen article to its rightful owner, despite the fact that he may have incurred the death penalty.14
13. One may well ask why the thief, who is going to be executed anyway,15 should bother to return the stolen object. He could just as well leave it to his spouse or child or a friend and therefore have some indirect benefit.
The explanation goes right to the heart of the intent of God’s Law, which is just and merciful at the same time. Every punishment meted out through the justice of the Noahide courts serves as an atonement, sparing the transgressor punishment in the Eternal World. This, of course, assumes that the convicted criminal repents for his transgression and returns to God before he is executed.
Because of the justice of the courts, therefore, a man can transgress and still repent and receive a share of the World to Come as a righteous person.
14. What happens then, if a man commits a crime and is not punished by the courts? Suppose there are two men, one who killed negligently but without premeditation and another who killed with malice aforethought. There were no witnesses to either crime. God will bring the two men together through Divine Providence. For instance, on a crowded street, the one who killed unintentionally might be driving a car, while the killer is crossing the street as a pedestrian. Not paying attention to what he is doing, the driver runs through a stop sign, killing the pedestrian. So what has God wrought? The murderer is killed, and the manslaughterer is now held as a manslaughterer.16
15. A Noahide who strikes another Noahide transgresses the commandment against theft and is liable for punishment by the courts, for the damage he caused brought a physical and psychological loss to the person struck.17 A Noahide who strikes an Israelite also violates the commandment of kedushat Yisrael, violating the sanctity of an Israelite.18
16. A person is forbidden to covet the property and physical dwelling place of another as expressed by the scriptural verse, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant nor his maidservant nor his ox nor his ass nor anything that is your neighbor’s (Exodus 20:14).”19
17. Since the Children of Noah are commanded to withhold themselves from committing theft, they are similarly commanded concerning deterrents to that transgression, namely desire.20
Coveting something that belongs to another is in precisely the same category as desiring the object except it takes it a step further, involving action. Whereas desire remains something of the heart, total covetousness presupposes that the person does something to fulfill his desire, such as pressure the owner or plead with the owner to sell him his house or field.21
18. When mankind is judged each year on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, God apportions each person’s income and sustenance and all forms of material acquisitions for the coming year. Nothing a person will do can add to what he has been allotted, and no one can take away what has been given to him, as King Solomon wrote, “The blessing of the Lord is that which makes rich, and painful labor adds nothing to it (Proverbs 10:22).” Therefore, to desire what belongs to another, and all the more so to covet it, is an act that betrays a lack of faith in God, for it is said, “Who is happy? One who is satisfied with his portion.”22
19. One is forbidden to enter another’s property stealthily and take back one’s own object, for thereby he is acting in the manner of a thief. Instead, one should confront the other and say, “This belongs to me, I am taking it.”23
20. One is forbidden to add to one’s own property by surreptitiously moving the landmarks back into the neighbor’s property, as it is written, “You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark (Deuteronomy 19:14).”
21. This act of usurping one’s land through moving a landmark involves the idea of unfair competition. For example, if a person has a business in an area that will only support one business of that type, and someone moves in across the street and opens the same kind of business, this is said to be removing one’s neighor’s landmark.24 Or today, the prevalent act of duplicating books or films or recorded songs without permission, even for one’s private use, is an act of moving your neighbor’s landmark, for one who does this denies his neighbor the right to make a living.
22. It is forbidden to withhold the salary of a worker. If one hires a worker, it is incumbent on the employer to pay the worker his wages at the conclusion of the day’s work, unless a different arrangement had been agreed upon ahead of time.25
It is similarly forbidden to refuse to repay a loan of money when one has the means to repay, or to refuse to return a borrowed object.26
All these are enjoined by the verse, “You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him (Leviticus 19:13).”
23. An employer who works in a field or in a restaurant is permitted to eat the produce of the field or some of the restaurant’s food as he works if it is in connection with his work. For instance, if a person harvests grapes, he is permitted to snack on the grapes as he works. Similarly, if he is a cook, he is permitted to eat some of the restaurant’s food. But, if he merely irrigates the land on which grapes grow, his snacking on grapes is considered theft. Similarly, if he is a dishwasher in a restaurant, his snacking on the restaurant’s food is considered theft unless the owner expressly permits it. Even in permissible cases, the employee may snack only as he works. If he loads up a basket and secretly takes the food home to feed himself or his family, it is theft.27
24. If a person steals anything worth more than a pruta and then another steals it from him, both transgress the commandment prohibiting theft.
1 Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b
2 Armed robbery (hamas in Hebrew) was the sin that sealed the fate of mankind to bring the Great Flood in the generation of Noah. See Genesis 6:13.
3 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 9:9
4 Just as a frame of reference, a pruta might be compared to a one agora coin in Israeli money, which in 2013 would be worth one-third of a U.S. penny. Israel stopped minting the one agora coin in 1991. Today, the smallest denomination coin being minted in Israel is a 10 agorot, worth about three U.S. pennies.
5 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57a
6 Encyclopedia Talmudica, The Children of Noah, volume 3, page 348 7 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 9:9
8 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57b
9 Minhat Hinnukh, Commandment 35
10 Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 70b, Tosefot, “What is this, usury?” 11 Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (1194-1270), known as the Ramban.
12 Genesis 34:13, commentary of Ramban
13 Mishnah Baba Metzia, 4:3
14 Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 71b, Tosefot, “The Sons of Noah are…”
15 See Chapter 11, Courts of Law, for a discussion as to whether violation of the commandment of theft earns the death penalty.
16 Exodus 21:13, commentary of Rashi, “But God caused it to come to hand…”
17 Genesis 34:13, commentary of Ramban; Encyclopedia Talmudica, The Children of Noah, volume 3, page 257
18 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 10:6
19 The Seven Laws of Noah, Lichtenstein, page 22. The term covet is used twice, the first relates to some action taken to acquire an object, the second relates to a desire for acquisition in the heart. The latter is obviously not punishable in a court of law because only God can know what is in a man’s heart.
20 Sefer HaHinnukh, Commandment 424
21 The Seven Laws of Noah, Lichtenstein, page 24
22 Chapters of the Fathers, 4:1. 23Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kamma 27b
23 Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, 156:1-7 24
25 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 9:9 Genesis 34:13, commentary of Ramban
27 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 9:9