Robbery vs. Larceny: Which Is Worse?

For centuries, common law countries have distinguished between larceny and robbery. Larceny was traditionally defined as “the felonious taking and carrying away of the personal goods of another.”(1) Robbery was considered a “compound larceny,” meaning that it contained all of the elements of larceny, but also required two other elements. First, the taking must be directly from a person or in his presence. Second, the taking must be done by “violence or putting [the victim] in fear.”(2) Modern American statutory definitions are essentially the same.(3)

The additional elements necessary for robbery result in the crime being categorized differently than larceny. In American state statutes, larceny is considered merely a crime against property. Robbery, in contrast, is classified as a crime against the person, because it involves a “violent invasion of the person.”(4) Accordingly, robbery generally carries a more severe punishment.(5) Thus, it is clear that American society views robbery as worse than larceny. The Torah, however, has a different perspective.

Rambam explains the difference between two types of stealing as follows: Geneiva occurs when the perpetrator clandestinely takes the property of another without the owner’s knowledge. However, if he takes the property in the open and forcefully, that is gezeila.(6) Consequently, geneiva is comparable to larceny, and gezeila is similar to robbery.

Although halacha recognizes the distinction between larceny and robbery, it has a unique view of which crime is worse. Unlike American statutes, which punish robbery more severely, the Torah is harsher upon those who commit larceny. While gazlan (one who commits gezeila) need only recompense his victim the amount stolen,(7) a ganav (one who commits geneiva) must generally pay back twice the amount that he stole.(8)

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students asked him why the Torah was more stringent upon a ganav than a gazlan. He answered the following (paraphrased):

A gazlan shows that he fears no one, neither God nor man, because he acts in public where not only God, but even man can see. A ganav, however, shows that he fears only man, but not God, because he attempts to hide his actions. It is as if he holds man in higher esteem than God.(9)

In other words, it is clear from the ganav‘s conduct that he denies (whether consciously or not) the ever-watchful Divine eye, as well as God’s ultimate justice. However, he is certainly afraid of being caught and punished by man, or else he would not conceal his theft. A gazlan, on the other hand, merely acts upon the (mistaken) assumption that what he gains from stealing outweighs any punishment that he may incur, whether human or Divine.(10) Therefore, the ganav commits a more egregious sin, and must be punished accordingly.


(1) 4 William Blackstone, Commentaries *229.

(2) Id., *229, *241-43.

(3) See, e.g.Nev. Rev. Stat. § 205.240 (petit larceny); Nev. Rev. Stat. § 200.380 (robbery).

(4) Lear v. State, 6 P.2d 426 (Ariz. 1931). See also the Nevada statutes cited in note 3.

(5) For example, in Nevada, grand larceny is punished by 1-10 years imprisonment, while robbery is punished by 2-15 years imprisonment. See supra note 3.

(6) Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchos Geneiva 1:3; Hilchos Gezeila 1:3.

(7) Vayikra [Leviticus] 5:23.

(8) Shemos [Exodus] 22:3. The extra penalty only applies if the ganav is convicted based on the testimony of two witnesses. It does not apply if the ganav wishes to return the stolen property on his own. Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchos Geneiva ch. 1, §§ 4-5.

(9) Bava Kamma 79b.

(10) Maharsha, Bava Kama 79b.


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Filed under American Law, Criminal Justice, Halacha / Jewish Law

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