Learning more about the prohibition against theft

An adult Gentile is warned about the prohibition of theft, and can be subject to capital punishment in a court of law for this transgression. This applies whether one forcefully robs or secretly steals money or any movable property, or kidnaps a person, or withholds the wages of his employee or other similar acts, or even an employed harvester who eats from his employer’s produce without permission to do so. For all such acts, a Gentile is liable for a capital sin, and one who commits any of these types of transgressions is considered as a robber. (pg 564-565, Chapter 1, The Prohibition of Theft, The Divine Code by Rabbi Moshe Weiner, edited with elucidations by Dr Michael Schulman)

Reading this in conjunction with the footnotes and with the other books on the Seven Commandments, it appears that theft has to do with the possession and ownership of property, including money, animals, people, etc. It is the removing or withholding of an item from the rightful without proper consent from the rightful owner.

However, for an action forbidden by government legislation to constitute the capital Noahide offense of theft, it must conform to the basic definition from Torah – that ownable property was physically taken from or withheld from its rightful owner. (Part 2, Section A, Stealing, Guide for the Noahide – A Complete Manual for Living by the Noahide Laws, by Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron, the Kindle version)

So belongings in general are protected by this prohibition. I can’t go to your backyard, chop down a tree and take it away. And when it comes to using false weights and fraud, the prohibited act is the result of such things, i.e., the taking of someone else’s property and belongings. So that means if I use false weights, it is not the fact that I possess false weights that will make me guilty with regards to the prohibition of theft, but it is when I use those weights to fraudulently take someone else’s goods.

A question then comes to mind: can I steal an idea? The answer would be no. It’s not an object that can be physically taken from someone (unless – as a teacher of mine said – I associated the idea with the physicality of his brain and extracted that part of his brain). If I’m talking to a friend, sharing my idea, and a stranger who I’m not talking to overhears and forms the same idea and uses it, no theft has taken place. No physical removal of an object has taken place.

What about if someone writes a book and then I use my own paper and pen and write down the contents of that book for my own usage? Is that theft? According to the root understanding of theft according to the Seven Laws, no! Because I haven’t physical removed the book itself from the originator. I used my own tools and recreated the book. What if someone writes a song and plays it, and then I learn to play that song and play it at a gig somewhere else without the writer’s knowledge or consent? Is that theft according to the Seven Laws? No! Because I haven’t physical removed the song from the original writer.

This has further repercussions. For example, if I copy a file that was supposedly someone else’s, I haven’t stolen it. That person still has their file, I just used my own “material,” a memory drive, and configured it to resemble the other person’s file. Watching or using copyrighted material that has been copied onto your device or someone else’s isn’t classed as theft according to the Seven Commandments.

It’s important to remember that I’m only discussing the Seven Commandments here, the legal stuff. I’m not talking about what is right and wrong morally per se. I’m not discussing moral principles or ideals. This article does not deal with whether it is good or bad, with regards to moral ideals, to copy someone else’s material and use it for your own purposes without that person’s consent. It only deals with whether such actions would be deemed as those things that could cause a person to be liable under a possible death penalty in a righteous court according to the Seven Commandments. So if a modern human court convicted a person of infringement of copyright for watching movies that some production company has not allowed in a certain country or website, or for copying such movies and making them available for others to view on his website, then would that same act make a person guilty of theft according to the Seven Commandments? Based on the basic definition of theft given above, the answer would be “no!”

Now some may ask “well, David, doesn’t any of the Seven Commandments obligate a person to listen to whatever the government commands?” This would be asked in order to show that as the government forbids some things, like infringements of copyright, then if a person breaks government law, they are in turn breaking the Seven Commandments. With joy and relief in my heart, I would answer that there is no basic law of the Seven Commandments that commands a non-Jew to obey whatever the government commands. Although some people who teach the Seven Commandments say that the universal law of Justice includes some requirement to “observe secular law,” this is not part of the core law of Justice, especially in times like today where countries and governments do not uphold the main corpus of the Seven Commandments. If disobeying a secular law does not make one liable for a potential death penalty at the hands of a righteous Gentile court which upholds the Seven Commandments reflecting a good government (if such a thing is possible) which provides such a court, then how much more is it true when there is no such thing as a righteous Gentile court which is provided by national governments that more or less spit on much of what the Seven Commandments teaches as forbidden?

So this is just some of my gleanings on the subject of theft after discussing it with my teachers. And there is so much, so much more to learn.

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7 Comments

  1. Elisheva Barre

    Indeed, there is so much more you have to learn! And basically, you have to learn that you are not competent to decide what is, and what isn’t, a theft according to your own minimal understanding.
    You have two basic misconceptions:
    a) a gentile who calls himself ben Noah is accountable to his own government for any deed considered criminal by the laws of his land, even if it were permitted by the Noahide laws (such as, for instance, marrying one’s own daughter).
    b) infringing copyrights is stealing because when you download a copyrighted book to your own device and then make it available to others, you are depriving the author of the revenue due to him for his work. Just like hopping on a bus without paying the fare under the pretext that “the bus is running anyway” is causing the company a loss of revenue. This is stealing – a capital punishment by Noahide laws, but subject to a fine by the laws of your land.
    Now that you know this, remove the web page you created of my book immediately or I will sue you in the courts of your land.

    • This won’t become a debate. I’ll say what I need to in order to avoid the need for a response.

      A gentile’s relationship with the politician who wish to enforce their opinion upon him is not the same as his obligations to God or morality. There have been plenty of instances of ruling classes giving immoral decrees. Yes, a gentile in any land is “accountable” is the sense that if he goes against the coercive opinions of that ruling class he must expect the consequences, regardless of whether those coercive opinions accord with morality/God’s law or not.

      Where it regards stealing, as the last paragraph stated, I did not come to that conclusion on my own. I do see rabbis as a source of advice (not judges or rulers or leaders) and I seek such advice when needed, such as this article. The issue is not my competence but who I listen to and how I apply that. Based on what they have said and the evidence I have seen, you are wrong.

      I’m not going to debate you on this issue. I will not use up my time in such an endeavour with someone who uses threats rather than the peaceful meeting of mind over the table of friendship and respect, where things can be asked for just on the basis of love, respect and reason. I would have done what you asked just if you had asked me with no threat but just based on the respect I had for you. You esteemed you so highly I would have done so. I come from a family whom I disagree with on various important matters yet we can still live with each other and love each other and do things just out of consideration without needing agreement or threatening force to gain compliance. I’m sorry I esteemed you so highly. That’s not your fault. It’s mine. I know you are not my family. I take seriously the fact that you threaten my livelihood.

      Of my own free will, I’ve removed that page. The link should be ineffective.

      As the table of peace has been removed, fertile grounds for fruitful discussion have followed suit. I’ll make short comments on your next point and remove myself from further discussion about this.

  2. Elisheva

    Infringing copyrights IS stealing because by making, for instance, a book available to the public on the internet, it is depriving the author of the income he would receive for the sale of his book. Like riding a bus without paying the fare is stealing because it deprives the company of its benefits. In fact, considering we must assume the author put A LOT of work, A LOT of time, and A LOT of thought into his work, infringing copyrights is a very severe form of stealing.
    I made my book available on the web for a short time, for the personal use of readers and after a while, I removed it. Whoever wants to read it now has to BUY it and pay me for my work. Fair enough, isn’t it? Would you ride a bus without paying the fare, or go to the movies without purchasing a ticket?
    A Ben Noah should be very careful about his laws, and he certainly cannot decide for himself what is permissible and what is not!

    • I’ll write another article in future about copyright. Although I believe you’re wrong, nothing can be gained from further discussion at this time.

      It is true that a gentile must be careful about his laws. That means that he must do his best to sift thru the conflicting opinions of Jews, whether it be yours or someone else’s, and then stand one his final conclusion in the face of condemnation from Jews whether it be from you or someone else. He can still remain open to further evidence, but not bow simply out of demands, curses, threats and accusations of incompetence. He must do his best to understand that such voices may assert their own truth, but he can only do what he can.

      Those are my final comments for now.

  3. Elisheva

    Rashi, Dvarim 18:19 (Sanhedrin 89a): “Three {falsse] prophets are killed [Rashi does not say how]: He who speaks a prophecy he did not hear, He who speaks what was not said to him but to another prophet; He who prophecies in the name of an idol.
    But the LAW, as Rambam states it, only a prophet who does not speak out his prophecy, or the one who transgresses his own words, will be put to death BY HEAVEN (and not a Court).
    (So you see, it is important to make a difference between a commentary, a quote from the Talmud, and the way the Law is implemented which has rules of its own).

    The prophet who speaks a prophecy not said to him but to ANOTHER prophet, is stealing this other’s words. From this, we derive by inference the principle of not infringing the copyrights which protect the works of an author (ths is relatively modern, since it started when printers would take the writings of someone else, print them and sell the books without crediting the author). Once again, by making my book available to the public, you deprive me the sale of my book.

    You said that BN are allowed to infringe copyrights! Your making the law as YOU (wrongly) understand does deserve a scolding.

    That’s it, I’m done. You won’t hear from me again.

    • Your derived principles have nothing to do with Gentiles or the seven laws. The conclusion “is stealing the other’s words” is your conclusion, your opinion. The fact you are trying (wrongly) to make it part of the seven may deserve a scolding, but I’m not the person to do it as we don’t have that relationship and it would take someone you either see as an equal or a superior to get it thru to you.

      As you’re not the authority over a Gentile not residing a Torah observing nation of Israel, I see your attempted coercion rather than reasoning, I see the weakness in your evidences, I find others to be stronger and clearer.

      I’ve done what you’ve demanded of me previously out of courtesy despite your threat. Although I still laud your excellent book, our business is done!

  4. Elisheva

    Causing a loss of gain to someone else is stealing. That is the Law, for both Jews and BN. The difference between them will be in the manner of punishment.

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