The Talmud forbids stealing from gentiles
Written by Gil Student
Jews May Steal from Non-Jews, Baba Mezia 24a. (Affirmed also in Baba Kamma 113b).
The passage in Bava Metzia 24a does not deal with theft but with returning lost objects with which we will deal in a separate section. However, before we deal with Talmudic texts let us look at the conclusions drawn in post-Talmudic legal works.
Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) Choshen Mishpat 348:2
Anyone who steals even a minor amount violates the prohibition of [Leviticus 19:11] "You shall not steal" and is required to repay [the amount stolen] whether one steals from a Jew or a gentile.
Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 359:1
It is forbidden to rob or to cheat even a minor amount from either a Jew or a gentile.
R. Shlomo Gantzfried, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Abridged Code of Jewish Law), 182:1
It is forbidden to rob or to steal even a minor amount from either a Jew or a gentile.
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Gezeilah 1:2
And it is biblically forbidden to steal even a minor amount; even a gentile - it is forbidden to steal from him or to cheat him. And if you stole from him or cheated him you must return the stolen money or object.
Sefer HaChinuch, 259
Maimonides of blessed memory wrote that if one lies in his measures and thereby overcharges even to an idolatrous gentile one violates a negative commandment and must return the money. Similarly, it is forbidden to mislead the gentiles in calculating prices as it says [Leviticus 25:50] "he shall make a reckoning with his purchaser" [see below] even if he is subjugated to your authority; even more so if the gentile is not subjugated to your authority and it says [Deuteronomy 25:16] "For an abomination to the Lord, you G-d, are all who do this."
Now that we have seen that it is unequivocably forbidden by Jewish law to steal from a gentile, let us visit the relevant Talmudic texts.
Talmud Bava Kamma 113a-b
And who permits stealing from a gentile [which is implied in an earlier case]? Doesn't it say [in a baraita]: R. Shimon said that R. Akiva taught this when he came from Zephirin: From where do we know that theft from a gentile is forbidden [Leviticus 25:48] "After he [a Jew] has been sold [as a slave to a gentile] he shall have a redemption." We see from here that the Jewish court cannot take him away and he will leave his gentile owner. Maybe [after being redeemed the Jewish slave will go free and] the gentile will have to collect his money on his own - therefore it says [v. 50] "he shall make a reckoning with his purchaser" - he will be scrupulous with his purchaser… Rava said: There is no contradiction [between this teaching and the earlier case]. Here [in this teaching] we are speaking about theft and here [in the earlier case] we are speaking about annulling a loan.
There are a number of important points in this passage. First, we see that stealing from a gentile is undeniably forbidden. The Talmud emphasizes this by explaining a difficult verse in Leviticus. As we have seen, this passage has been accepted throughout the post-Talmudic literature. Another important point is that annulling a loan from a gentile is permitted. Normally, a loan is witnessed and documented to make it legally effective. When this is not done, a Jew is still obligated to take pity on his lender despite the lack of legal proof. Even though the lender was careless and neglected to properly document his business dealing, a Jew must go beyond the letter of the law and have mercy on his hapless colleague. However, this brotherly act need only extend to this borrower's extended family. A Jew is only obligated to go beyond the letter of common business law for his Jewish brothers and cousins. Those who are not part of his extended family, part of his organic nation, are treated fairly and respectfully but do not receive the special treatment reserved for his family.
Going back to the prohibition of stealing from a gentile, there is a debate regarding this prohibition. Some scholars contend that this prohibition is biblical, as seems evident from the derivation from biblical verses [see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Geneivah 1:1, 7:8, Hilchot Gezeilah 1:1; R. Yechezkel Landau, Noda BiYehudah I Y"D 81; R. Yom Tov Algazi, Hilchot Bechorot 2:17; R. Chaim of Volozhin, Responsa Chut Hameshulash, 14, 17; R. Ephraim Navon, Machaneh Ephraim, Hilchot Gezeilah, 3; R. Yair Bachrach, Chavot Yair, 79; R. Tzvi Ashkenazi, Chacham Tzvi, 26]. Others believe that theft from gentiles is biblically permitted but the rabbis, using their own authority, prohibited this act for all Jews [see Rashi, Sanhedrin 57a; R. Nissim of Gerona, Chiddushei HaRan, Sanhedrin 57a]. However that may be, we see that Jewish law clearly forbids stealing from anyone whether Jew or gentile.
Tanna Devei Eliyahu 16
I once sold to a gentile four korin [28 bushels] of dates and I measured it out evenly for him in a dark room. He said to me: G-d rules over the heavens and you know how much you measured for me. However, since I measured in a dark room I [accidentally] gave him three seahs [0.7 bushels] too little. After he paid me I purchased a jar of oil and placed it in the same place where I sold the dates to the gentile. The jar burst and the oil spilled out [as a divine punishment]. I said to him: My son, it says [Leviticus 19:13] "You shall not cheat your fellow and you shall not steal…" Your fellow is like your brother and your brother is like your fellow. You learn from here that it is forbidden to steal from a gentile because it is theft, and it need not be said that theft from your brother is forbidden.
Not only does Jewish law forbid theft from a gentile, the rabbis were particularly concerned about Jews appearing to be an unlawful people thereby defaming both the Jewish nation and their G-d. This sentiment is evident in the following passages.
Tosefta Bava Kamma 10:8
It is worse to steal from a gentile than from a Jew because of desecration of [G-d's] name.
Jerusalem Talmud Bava Metzia 2:5 (7a)
R. Chaninah told this story: Some rabbinic scholars bought one pile of wheat from some gentile soldiers. [The scholars] found in it a bundle of money and returned it to [the soldiers]. [The soldiers] said "Blessed is the G-d of the Jews."
Midrash Devarim Rabbah 3:3
Once, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach bought a donkey from an Arab. His students went and found a precious stone hanging around [the donkey's] neck. Rabbi said to him [Proverbs 10:22] "It is the blessing of G-d that enriches." R. Shimon ben Shetach said to him "I bought a donkey. I did not buy a precious stone." He went and returned it to the Arab and the Arab said "Blessed is the G-d of Shimon ben Shetach." Jerusalem Talmud Bava Metzia 2:5 (7a)
R. Shmuel ben Sustrai went to Rome when the empress had lost her bracelet and he found it. A decree was proclaimed in the region that anyone who returned it within 30 days would be paid such and such; anyone who returned it after 30 days would be beheaded. He didn't return it within 30 days but after 30 days. She said to him "Weren't you in the region?" He replied "Yes." She said to him "Didn't you hear the proclamation?" He replied "Yes." She said to him "What was it?" He replied "Whoever returns it within 30 days will receive such and such; whoever returns it after 30 days will be beheaded." She said to him "And why didn't you return it within 30 days?" He replied "So that you wouldn't say that I did it because of fear of you; rather I did it out of fear of G-d." She said to him "Blessed is the G-d of the Jews."