You Shall Not Steal…But What?

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we read the story of God’s revelation to the People of Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  Tradition has infused this moment with great significance.  It is revered by the Talmudic sages, and is seen as evidence that God wishes to enter into a personal relationship with His people as a community and with each individual.  The “Revelation,” as it is called, is also the moment when God communicates the essence of a proper life to the People of Israel through the Ten Commandments.  While the Torah contains many laws and teachings, the Ten Commandments are offered by the Torah as the foundation of an ethical and moral life.  According to tradition, it is only after the Revelation and the presentation of the Ten Commandments that Moses ascends the mountain to commune with God and receive the Torah that he will present to the People of Israel.

The Ten Commandments have become a cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian heritage and have been embraced and studied for as long as Jews and Christians have walked the earth.  Rabbinic teaching has found meaning and insight in the story of the Revelation, as well as in each of the commandments.  One of the commandments, “You shall not steal,” is a good example.  While its meaning may seem straightforward, the sages debated what it actually means.

Rashi (1040-1105, France) taught that the eighth commandment, presented simply as two Hebrew words in the Torah (“Lo Tignov”) can refer to stealing money, material items, or even kidnapping people.

Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir ha-Kohen, known as the “Shakh,” (Lithuania and Poland, 1621-1662) taught that since the eighth commandment doesn’t specify what should not be stolen, it therefore can be understood to apply not only to stealing someone’s money and possessions, but also to lying and deceit.

From this teaching and others like it, Jewish law developed a prohibition against a particular type of theft:  Geneivat Da’at, or “theft of the mind,” by which they intended to prohibit various forms of misrepresentation and deception.  While it is permissible to avoid the truth to preserve someone’s dignity and avoid embarrassment or ridicule, it is not permissible to knowingly deceive someone in order to secure an advantage, especially in business.  It is forbidden by Jewish law to offer goods for sale that are not of the quality that is advertised.  Similarly, it is not permissible for a merchant to offer goods for sale based on a false premise, such as an announcement that someone is going out of business, for that would create the false impression that there is a limited time to make a discounted purchase.

Geneivat Da’at also applies to persuading someone to do something or donate money on a false premise, such as asking for charitable funds when the need is not real.  Geneivat Da’at  forbids shielding assets based on a false premise, such as transferring funds to another party such as a dependent child in order to qualify for federal assistance like Medicaid.  Similarly, one is forbidden from creating an impression of accomplishment or importance when the circumstances do warrant such for personal gain, whether in a tangible form or in the form of prestige.

There are numerous applications of Geneivat Da’at to the realm of ethics and business, as well as interpersonal relationships, the fruit of interpretation of two simple Hebrew words- Lo Tignov.  Such a treasure chest of ideas and meaning reinforces my belief that the Torah is truly an infinite reservoir of understanding and teaching that can guide our lives in the times in which we live.

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