Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Repayment of theft in the Talmud

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Thievery Corporation. In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ how the theft of a pregnant cow leads the Talmudic sages to examine the concept of wages.
In Chapter Nine of Tractate Bava Kamma, the rabbis continue their inquiry into different kinds of injury and damage. The previous chapter examined cases of deliberate personal injury: How should someone who inflicts a bodily injury be punished? (The answer, as we saw, is not “an eye for an eye,” as the Bible recommends, but the payment of monetary compensation.) In this week’s Daf Yomi, we read about a different kind of deliberate injury: theft. Here, too, there is an explicit biblical law, stated in the Book of Leviticus, which holds that a thief must return what he stole to its original owner, plus an additional one-fifth as a penalty.

In the Talmud, however, the rabbis raise a problem that the biblical law doesn’t seem to foresee. What if a thief steals an item, and while it is in his possession it either increases or decreases in value? Say the thief steals a cow, and it subsequently becomes pregnant and gives birth to a calf. Who owns the calf, the original owner or the thief? Or, contrariwise, what if the thief steals a coin and it breaks while in his possession, rendering it worthless? Does the thief return the broken pieces of the coin, or must he pay back the value of a whole coin? Who keeps the profit or suffers the loss, the thief or the original owner?

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.