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, begets the question regarding the different fines. Why is it that someone who steals an ox gets fined five times the value of the theft whereas someone who steals a lamb gets 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 1st century CE, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai:
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said: Come and see how great human dignity is. 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.
(Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama, 79)
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai 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 Menachem Hameiri (Provence 1249-1315) inferred an educational message in this explanation that the Torah wishes to teach us through this law about theft: “A person has to be very careful with the dignity of others. Chazal said: Come and see how great human dignity, an ox, which walked on its own legs, fivefold, a sheep which the thief carried on his shoulders – fourfold” (Hameiri, Beit Habechira, Baba Kama ibid).
The Torah wants to educate the thief, and all of us. Even a person who lost his conscience and his self-esteem, 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 behaves 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.