This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, deals primarily with social laws “bein adam l’havero,” between people, such as laws of loans, testimony and deposits; laws pertaining to violence, damages and theft; and returning lost property. These laws are very detailed. We will focus on one of these laws that centers on a thief.
The case dealt with by this law is when a person steals a bull or a lamb – domesticated animals people had during the times of the Bible – and he either kills or sells the stolen animal. When the thief is caught, he is required to pay the value of what he stole, and is also fined:
“If a man steals a bull or a lamb and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five cattle for the bull or four sheep for the lamb” (Exodus 21:37).
Usually, biblical law determines that a caught thief gets a “double fine” – a requirement to pay twice the value of what was stolen. But in this case, when the thief continued to sin by killing or selling the animal, he gets an even higher fine: If he stole an ox, he is required to pay five times the value of the theft; and if he stole sheep, he has to pay four times the value of the theft.
This, of course, raises a question regarding the different fines. Why is it that someone who steals an ox is fined five times the value of the theft, whereas someone who steals a lamb is fined only four times the value of the theft?
We are not the first to find this law difficult to comprehend. This question was asked in a beit midrash in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago! We hear the answer from the greatest of Jewish Sages in the first century CE, Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai:
“Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakai said: Observe how great is the importance attached to human dignity. The theft of an ox, which walked on its own legs as the thief stole it, leads to a fivefold payment, whereas the theft of a sheep, which the thief carried on his shoulder as he walked, thereby causing himself embarrassment, leads to only a fourfold payment” (Bava Kama 79b).
Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai teaches us that the law determining the thief’s fine takes into account the honor of the thief himself. In the case of the theft causing the thief some sort of embarrassment – his fine is lower!
It is difficult to grasp such an absurdity. Are we being asked to be considerate of the thief who embarrassed himself while committing a crime?
Rabbi Menahem Hameiri (Provence 1249-1315) inferred from this explanation an educational message that the Torah wishes to teach us through this law about theft:
“A person has to be very careful with the dignity of others. Our Sages said: Observe how great is the importance attached to human dignity: an ox, which walked on its own legs, fivefold; a sheep, which the thief carried on his shoulders – fourfold” (Hameiri, Beit Habehira, Bava Kama ad loc.).
The Torah wants to educate the thief, and all of us. Even a person who lost his conscience and his self-respect, even he is worthy of respect. The thief has to hear this when he is fined. The thief will internalize that, even if he himself behaved in an undignified manner, the justice system still sees him as someone worthy of respect. The fine he is punished with distinguishes between a minor self-debasement and a significant one.
Removing someone from the cycle of crime does not necessarily entail severe punishment. Education and granting respect are preferable. If you, dear thief, have lost your self-respect, we will teach you that you are worthy of respect. You, too, have positive traits, and you are worthy. Thus, the punishment will not lead the thief to commit another crime, but will hopefully help lead him out of the quagmire and into rehabilitation. ■
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.