Therapy for a Thief

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

A recent newspaper article (Maariv, 28/12/2000) described how an off -duty police officer had succeeded in identifying a thief who had been wanted for robbing a bank four months previously. The thief had been photographed while holding up the bank teller and stealing 5000 shekels but had not been seen since that event. The officer, who was casually surfing the internet, noticed a picture of the wanted man and realized that he was actually confined in the jail where the officer served. It transpired that the thief was serving time for -you guessed it – armed robbery, and had been granted a one- day furlough which he utilized to practice his profession.

Despite the encouraging feature of this story-the use of modern technology to track down wanted felons -it is still very depressing, because it highlights the fact that modern man has no adequate solution for crime. Locking up criminals may protect society from them (except when they are on furlough), but does nothing to reform their behavior or to deal with its causes. The prevalence of repeat offenders is as much an indictment of the system as of the criminals themselves.

The Torah, however, establishes precise guidelines in Parshat Vayikra as to how a thief can rectify his status and reenter society. First and foremost he must return the stolen property. If the property does not exist any more then he must reimburse its value. Without this prerequisite there is no hope for a reformation on his part, since he must first see that “crime doesn’t pay. “The Torah is so strict on this point that if a thief does not have the wherewithal to reimburse his victims, he can be sold into slavery to pay his depts.

A second obligation on the thief is to pay an extra fifth of the sum which he stole. Rabbi Shlomo Lunchitz, the 16th century author of “Kli Yakar,” explains this in two ways: 1) The money which had been in the hands of the thief is worth more than its value, because it could have been invested profitably in the meantime. 2) G-d gives man wealth on condition that he pays his “dues” back to G-d by supporting the poor. A rich man is expected to give up to a fifth of his possessions to charity. The thief however stole from his friend and deprived the poor of their sustenance and therefore he must start afresh by repaying his debt to the victim and to society.

Finally it is incumbent on the thief to realize that he has sinned to G-d as well as to his fellow man. G-d gives resources to those who He deems most deserving. By denying his crime and attempting to escape from the hand of justice the thief is declaring that he does not accept G-d’s distribution of resources and considers it unfair. The only way to atone for this is to reestablish a close, personal relationship with G-d. The thief must therefore journey to Jerusalem and present a guilt-offering in the Temple, thus reaffirming his faith in G-d and requesting His pardon for his crimes (Not every case requires a guilt-offering; only a thief who denies his act under oath must bring a sacrifice).

Two additional points should be made. The Torah stresses that the thief should return the money “to the one to whom it belongs,” and not to his representative or a friend. The thief must face the person he has wronged and redress his loss. The obvious psychological effect of this is to “turn the clock back” and erase the act of theft as if it had not occurred. The thief should be humbled into contrition by this meeting with his victim, while the victim himself will feel a sense of triumph and vindication. The Kli Yakar notes that this must be done on the same day that he confesses his crime. There is no time to be wasted on regret and remorse; action must be taken first to ensure that a new path is pursued. G-d can wait for the guilt-offering and rapprochement, but first the evil must be eradicated. In this way the thief can turn his back on his past problems and embark on a true reform of his ways which will not terminate in the same prison cell he just left.


Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).