Avoda Zara 23 - 29
Two Types of Thieves
“He should exaggerate the distance he plans to travel, as Yaakov did when dealing with his dangerous brother Esav.”
This advice is given in a beraita on our daf as one of a number of tips for a traveler who meets another traveler along the way, whom he suspects may do him harm. Instead of telling the other person his true destination, he should tell him that he is headed for a place that is actually farther along, in order to mislead the person into thinking that there is still plenty of time to do harm. In this way, the innocent traveler has a better chance of arriving at his destination safely before his dangerous companion has decided to act.
The proof for this deceptive, cunning behavior is taught in the beraita based on what Yaakov told Esav as opposed to what he actually did. Yaakov told Esav as they both set out to travel, “Now let my master (Esav) go ahead before his servant, and I will move at my own slow pace… until I come to my master to Se’ir.” (Gen 33:14) However, Yaakov had no intention to travel as far as Se’ir at that time, but rather planned to travel only as far as a nearer place, as the verse states, “And Yaakov traveled to Succot....” (Gen. 33:17) This halacha of tricking a potentially dangerous travel escort is cited in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 153:3, with an intriguing “footnote” there.
Rashi in his commentary on the Chumash quotes the Midrash Rabbah (Gen. 78:14), which states that Yaakov was not actually lying. Although he did not go to Se’ir at that time when he was with Esav, he will indeed go there in the days of the Mashiach (see Ovadia 1:21).
Our gemara brings two stories that illustrate this halacha, with a fascinating twist. In one case the students of Rabbi Akiva were travelling to the city of Kaziv in the Land of Israel, when they were approached by robbers on the road. “Where are you going?” asked the robbers. “To Acco” replied the students (farther than Kaziv – Rashi). The robbers accompanied the students, and when they arrived at Kaziv the students separated themselves, safely, at their destination, to the surprise of the robbers. “Whose students are you?” the robbers asked them. “Students of Rabbi Akiva,” they replied. “Praiseworthy are Rabbi Akiva and his students, that no bad person ever harmed them” announced the robbers.
A second story happened in Bavel (Babylonia): Rav Menashe was travelling to a city called Bei Turta. Thieves approached him and asked where he was going. He told them that he was headed for Pumpedita, a city farther than his real intended destination. They travelled along with him, and when he arrived at Bei Turta he separated himself from the dangerous thieves. They said to him, “You are the student of (Rav) Yehuda the liar!” (Rashi explains that they were demeaning not only Rav Menashe but his Rabbi, since he certainly learned how to deceive them from the teachings of Rav Yehuda, his Rabbi.) Rav Menashe defended the honor of the Torah and the honor of the Torah scholar who taught him, Rav Yehuda, by cursing the band of thieves who dishonored the Torah and its scholars. For the next twenty-two years the thieves saw only failure in their attempted thefts. This caused them to seek out Rav Menashe to lift the curse from them. (All but one thief atoned, and he was eaten by a lion according to the gemara.)
The gemara concludes with an insightful comparison of these two similar stories of robbers and thieves who accompanied Torah scholars on their travels in both the Land of Israel and in Bavel, according to the very different reactions of these criminals. “Come and see,” states the gemara, “the difference between the thieves of Bavel and the robbers of the Land of Israel.” Rashi points out that the word for robbers in the gemara refers to a more dangerous type of person than the word used for thief in the gemara. Despite the robbers being more dangerous, they praised the Torah scholars when they heard the wisdom of the Torah that guided them, whereas the less dangerous thieves cursed the Torah scholars. Rashi notes that this concluding statement of the gemara is meant to highlight the praise of the Land of Israel.
This statement in our gemara reminds me of a case that occurred in a yeshiva in Jerusalem that was robbed in the middle of the night (decades ago, and alarm systems were installed immediately afterwards). In the morning when the theft was discovered, I heard the following report from someone in the yeshiva’s office: “The thief stole all of the money and the passports from the safe, but he didn’t steal any of the expensive silver adornments for the Torah scrolls that were kept there. I guess he was a ‘religious’ thief!”
- Avodah Zarah 25b-26a