36. Human Trafficking: The prohibition against kidnapping

You must not steal (Exodus 20:13)

The “Ten Commandments” may not be so clear-cut as many people think! In the past two mitzvos we analyzed how the prohibition is not to murder rather than not to kill and that the definition of adultery refers specifically to a married woman. Now we must clarify that “Thou shalt not steal” really means “Thou shalt not kidnap.” (If the “Ten Commandments,” which most people think they know pretty well, are so misunderstood by so many people, just imagine how little we truly understand the rest of the mitzvos!)

That the prohibition here refers to kidnapping is obvious from context. Here, the context is capital crimes. The adjacent mitzvos – murder, adultery – are punishable with execution. Stealing money isn’t punishable by death, but human trafficking is. (There is a separate mitzvah prohibiting the theft of money, found among other financial laws in parshas Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:11. We’ll come to that IY”H in mitzvah #224.)

It would seem that a Jew only incurs the death penalty for kidnapping and selling another Jew. We see that the victim must be Jewish from Deut. 24:7 (“If a person is discovered stealing a person from among his brethren, the children of Israel…”) and that the victim must be sold from Exodus 21:16 (“One who kidnaps a person and sells him…”). Of course, this does not make it permissible to kidnap non-Jews or to kidnap Jews and keep them, it just means that certain conditions must be met to trigger the capital punishment aspect.

It is equally prohibited to kidnap men and women, infants and adults. This prohibition applies to both men and women in all times and places. It is #243 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #33 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be fulfilled today in the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar. In the Talmud, it is discussed in Sanhedrin 85b-86a. It can be found in the Mishneh Torah in Hilchos Geneivah chapter 9.