Theft is prohibited by the Torah and is counted as one of the 365 negative commands. While kidnapping is a particular form of theft, it is, however, enumerated as a separate negative command. So significant is the prohibition against kidnapping that the warning against it comprises one of the Aseret Ha’Dibrot, mentioned in Exodus 20:13. Commonly but incorrectly referred to as the Ten Commandments, the Aseret Ha’Dibrot, the “Ten Statements,” in fact include more than ten commands or mitzvot.
The words that refer to the prohibition of kidnapping are “lo tignov,” do not steal. The very same expression is used elsewhere in the Torah to prohibit theft of objects. Our great Torah scholars know that the prohibition of the Aseret Ha’Dibrot refers specifically to kidnapping from an analysis of the context of this verse. It is placed on the same side of the “Two Stone Tablets of the Covenant” brought down from Mt. Sinai by Moshe as the other commands regarding the proper treatment of our fellow man: honor to parents, not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to bear false witness against another person, and not to covet the possessions of another person.
The severe punishment for kidnapping, death by the court, is clearly stated in the Torah, Exodus 21:16 and again in Deuteronomy, 24:7. What is the reason for capital punishment? It isn’t just that the kidnapper has total disregard for the boundaries of rights and human decency. It isn’t because kidnapping is just an extreme version of taking someone else’s possessions, that the victim is legally viewed as a superior or more valued object of theft. If that were the case, then just like a thief can make restitution by returning the stolen object and pay a fine, so too would be the law if the kidnapper returns the person unharmed. We would expect only that a heavier fine would be imposed by the court. Yet the Torah invokes the death penalty for someone who commits kidnapping.
The Rambam in his work, Guide for the Perplexed, gives us the reason for such a severe penalty. In Book III, chapter 41, he states, “He who steals a human being is killed because he is also prepared to murder him who he steals.” This fact is, I believe, made evident by the divine language expressed for this crime in the verse from Deuteronomy 24:7. In this verse the Torah uses the term “he who steals a nefesh or “soul” rather than the term ish or “man” used in Exodus 21:16. The kidnapper is fully willing to murder the victim to achieve his goal. God knows the kidnapper will “take the soul” or life of his victim, push comes to shove. It is the total disregard for human life by the kidnapper that causes the court to invoke the ultimate penalty in this case. A person who commits the crime of kidnapping has displayed his psychopathology. A person with such a distorted personality, exhibited by his actions has forfeited his right to existence. Kidnappers have no regard for the sanctity of human life and the “image of God” with which every human being is endowed.
This past week we all became aware of the horrific event, the kidnapping of three young yeshiva students in the area of Judea and Samaria. They are Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frankel. Let us redouble our efforts and bring pressure on those who have taken them to release them unharmed. Write and call our congressmen and women as well as the President. Ask them to bring the full weight of the United States to secure their speedy release from captivity.
Before Shabbat we collectively pray, “Our brethren, the entire family of Israel, who are delivered into distress and captivity, whether they are on sea or on dry land, may the Omnipresent One have mercy on them and remove them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily and soon- and let us say: Amen.”
Rabbi Robert Kaplan