י״ד באב ה׳תשע״ו (August 18, 2016)

Bava Kamma 79a-b: The Robber, the Thief and God

Throughout this chapter – Perek Meruba – we have focused on kenasot – the punishments that a thief will have to pay over and above returning the stolen object or its value. It is important to note that these kenasot apply only to a ganav – a thief, who looks for an opportunity to steal when no one will see him. A gazlan – a robber, who brazenly steals in broad daylight – is not obligated to pay kenasot.

This seeming anomaly is addressed in our Gemara, where we find the question of why the Torah was more strict with a ganav than with a gazlan presented to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai by his students. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai explained to them that the ganav appears to fear people, yet he has no fear of God. By making sure that no one will see him steal, he is effectively denying the all-seeing eye of God who knows what he is doing. The gazlan is not a God-fearing person, but at least he is not afraid of people, either.

The Maharsha explains that although our intuition would usually encourage us to think that the individual who flaunts the law publicly should be punished more harshly, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai emphasizes the aspect of hillul HaShem – of the desecration of God’s Name – that is involved in these stories. While the ganav is clearly concerned with the consequences of his actions, he denies God’s omniscience and active participation in the world. The gazlan clearly recognizes that there is a judge in the world, and that he may be forced to pay for his crimes, but he acts in response to his personal drives for immediate gratification. Nevertheless, by his actions he shows no indication of a lack of faith in God.

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