MISHPATIM (Exodus, 21:1-24:18) — “Double Trouble”

What is the best way to discourage theft?  Jail time?  A prison sentence is often counterproductive.

The Torah has a very unique way of punishing someone for stealing.  Hit him in the pocketbook.  If he steals ten dollars, he has to pay back twenty.  A fifteen hundred dollar computer will cost him three thousand. If he steals a million dollars, the payback is two million.

This is a very effective deterrent.  People steal in order to get more money/possessions than they already have.  Therefore, the Torah makes sure that his efforts will backfire. By charging the thief double, we set him further back financially than he was before he started. He will certainly think twice before he tries this backward way of expanding his portfolio.

(What if he can’t afford to pay?  See  “Human Rights: Body Piercing And Slavery”.)

There are several exceptions to this rule:

* This double payment applies only to theft, not robbery.  A thief is one who sneaks into your house and steals from you.  A robber is someone who forces you to give him your possessions.  A robber is exempt from paying double.   One might think that it should be the other way around.  We normally tend to consider a robber to be worse than a thief.  After all, he shows flagrant disregard for your property, and stares you in the face and takes from you.

The Torah looks at it differently.  Who is worse, a robber, who shows disregard for both G-d and man and takes what he wants, or a thief, who sneaks around in fear of man, with obvious scorn for G-d’s will?  The thief receives the greater punishment, because he fears man more than he fears G-d.

* If he confesses, he only pays back the principle, and the fine is canceled. The Torah encourages honesty and repentance.  Why should he confess?  He may as well deny it, and HOPE to get away with it.  By canceling the fine, the Torah gives the thief a good reason to come clean.

* In almost all cases, the thief pays double.  However, if he steals an ox or a sheep, the law is different. If the animal is still available to be returned, the law is the same.  He needs to return the animal, plus a second one or the equivalent value.  But, if the ox or sheep has been sold or slaughtered, the fine is not just double.  In this case, he has to pay quadruple for the sheep, and QUINTUPLE for the ox! (Exodus 21:37)

Two questions:

1) Why is the fine for stealing these two animals and slaughtering or selling them different from everything else?  What is unique about these two animals that they deserve an enhanced payback?

 2) What is the difference between an ox and a sheep that he has to pay four sheep and five oxen?

For the first question, I’ve never really come across a complete answer. (Any suggestions out there?)  One possible answer could be that an ox can be used for plowing, and a sheep can be sheared for its wool.  It’s bad enough to steal someone’s money.  But if you steal a person’s means of making a living, it’s significantly worse.  (The reason I’m not so sure about this answer is that this law applies exclusively to an ox and a sheep.  It doesn’t apply to stealing a cab driver’s taxi or a Mohel’s scalpel.  I’m open to suggestions for a better answer.)

As for the second question, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai gives us an answer.  (Talmud, Bava Kamma, 89b) How do you steal an ox?  You put a rope around its neck, and you lead it away.  How do you steal a lamb?  You pick it up, throw it over your shoulder, and run as fast as you can!

Look at the lamb thief, says Rabban Yochanan.  Look how degrading it is to run through the streets with a lamb on your shoulders.  How humiliating!  Since the act of stealing a lamb is inherently more embarrassing than stealing an ox, the thief is judged as having received part of his punishment already!


Wait a minute!  Since when are we so concerned about the feelings of a thief?  Embarrassed?  Do we really think he cares?  All he wants is to safely escape to where he can broil up some lamb chops!  And so what if he cares?! He’s a thief! He DESERVES to be embarrassed!

The answer is that nothing escapes G-d’s watchful eye.  Even a cattle rustler, a despicable individual who thinks nothing of depriving a fellow human being of his livelihood, is considered.  He couldn’t care less about others, but G-d cares about him.  He’s the lowest of the low, yet G-d refuses to overpunish him.  Indignity is part of his punishment, and it lowers the price he has to pay.


Humiliation hurts. Even self-inflicted humiliation hurts. Even self-inflicted humiliation endured while committing a crime hurts.  And G-d notices.

Imagine how much more so He notices when I embarrass an INNOCENT person whose only crime is being on the wrong end of an argument with me!

Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

“Voting ‘Against’ G-d, or, “Whose Torah IS This Anyway?!” (2010)

… The Talmud records a fascinating dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues…

Rabbi Eliezer presented logical argument after logical argument to support his view, but to no avail. The Rabbis disagreed. Rabbi Eliezer, a holy man, decided to miraculously defy nature in order to bring home his point. … Finally, Rabbi Eliezer pulled his “Heaven Card.” “If I am right, let the Heavens prove it!”

A heavenly voice boomed in reprimand of the Sages: “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer, when the Law, in fact, is always in accordance with his opinion?!” …

They wouldn’t budge. Rabbi Joshua stood up and quoted from Deuteronomy (30:12) “It (the Torah) is not in Heaven!”… Pretty gutsy, no? …

Read more.
“We Wish You a Merry Shabbos???” (2009)

… One Shabbos, he walked into shul and found it to be packed. …it was a non-Jewish holiday. Since stores were legally required to be closed, the otherwise-Sabbath violators took advantage of the opportunity to come to shul, along with their children…

“No doubt,” said the rabbi, “your children must have asked you, ‘Why is this Shabbos different from all the other Shabboses of the year?’

“And you must have answered, ‘This Shabbos is greater than every other Sabbath because today is the birthday of the founder of another religion…’”

Read more.
“Let’s Make a Deal” (2007)

Okay, I admit it! I am a criminal. I am a lawbreaker. I have confessed in open court. I have thrown myself on the mercy of the court and pled guilty to violating the law…

I got to watch some criminal proceedings too. The prosecutor, lawyers, and judge all played their parts professionally. As each one recited his scripted line, the others nodded and scribbled little notes on their legal pads in their legal folders. One young man was accused of breaking and entering. The prosecutor offered to reduce the charge to a less severe one. Scribble, scribble. The judge agreed. Scribble, scribble. Then the judge said, “According to the statutes, you have to give a valid reason for this type of reduction.” Scribble, scribble.

The prosecutor’s response?

“In the interest of Justice.” Scribble, scribble.


Read more.
“A Capital Idea” (2005)

Regardless of your position on capital punishment, it seems possible to find support from the Torah.

This week’s Torah Portion is replete with prohibitions for which the death penalty applies …

On the other hand, we find in the Talmud that the Sages went to great pains to avoid carrying out the death penalty … Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of Blessed Memory… wrote in 1982 to “Sar Hamedina” — “The Prince of the State.” (I assume that refers to President Reagan or New York Governor Hugh Carey). Rabbi Feinstein was responding to a question as to the Torah’s view on capital punishment…

Read more.
“Oh Say, Can you Sue?!” (2004)

…Jack and Jill lived up the hill.

Each of these two neighbors owned an ox. Jill’s ox was out in the field one day, calmly grazing on grass. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jack’s ox charged, ramming his horns into his unsuspecting neighbor. To Jill’s utter shock, her ox lay there in the field, and bled to death…

Jill hired Johnnie Cochran, who told the jury how Jill’s life had been shattered by the loss of her livelihood. By the time the trial was over… Jack was ruined, and Jill bought a condo in Boca. 

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit.

Jack and Jill are now Yaakov and Yocheved. Instead of going to court, Yocheved, a religious woman, went to … a rabbinic tribunal for justice… She was dismayed by the response…

Yesterday, Yocheved owned $1000 worth of ox. Today she has $500 cash and $50 worth of dead ox. So much for the condo in Boca. …

Read more.
“Double Trouble” (2003)

What is the best way to discourage theft? … The Torah has a very unique way of punishing someone for stealing. … the Torah makes sure that his efforts will backfire…

 Read more.
“Your Ivory Tower Is Blocking My Driveway!” (2002)

When we overly involve ourselves in the sublime, we run the risk of ignoring the mundane…  How do we explain the occasional unfortunate situation of a religious person who is  dishonest? 

Read more.
“Human Rights: Body Piercing and Slavery” (2001)

Jews have always been known for their spirit of social consciousness. We have always been at the forefront in calling out for fairness to all people. We marched with Martin Luther King in Selma… After all we’ve been through, we know what it’s like to be deprived of civil liberties. We would never want to see anyone subjugated or oppressed in any way.

… Where is the outrage?! Where is the J.C.L.U. (Jewish Civil Liberties Union)? Where is the hue and cry from the AFL/CIO, protesting the cruel and unusual treatment of a worker? Is this why G-d took us out of Egypt, so we could be subjected to harsh working conditions and forced body piercing?!!…

Read more.

 This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2014 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


If you enjoyed this, send it to a friend.

To subscribe to Torah Talk, send an e-mail to Torahtalk@gmail.com, and type “Subscribe” on the subject line.

To unsubscribe, type “Unsubscribe” on the subject line.

Published in: on January 28, 2003 at 8:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: