"Rabban Yocḥanan ben Zakkai’s students asked him: ‘For what reason was the Torah stricter with a ganav, thief than with a gazlan, robber?’” (Bava Kamma 79b).

Jewish law distinguishes between two types of thieves: a ganav and a gazlan. The former is one who steals stealthily, breaking into one’s home when no one is there, or to use a more current, common and relevant example, a white-collar criminal. The latter is your plain old mugger, one who puts a gun to your head and says your money or your life, or perhaps robs a bank.

I think it is fair to say that we would consider the gazlan, one who brazenly and openly steals, to be the worse of the two. In addition to taking goods that are not his he (and it is usually a he – though not always) causes great pain and stress to the one targeted. It is bad enough having one’s home broken into – it is quite another to be held up at gunpoint. Yet the Torah seems to think otherwise.

ganav must pay the victim double what he stole whereas a gazlan must pay back only the amount stolen. No actual fine or penalty is assessed. This rather strange ruling bothered the students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zackai. By his students we are referring not to some high school kid, but to such rabbinic luminaries as Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Yossi. Yet they could not understand the rationale behind the law and asked their teacher to explain it to them.

“He said to them: This one, [the gazlan] equated the honour of the servant to the honour of his Master, and that one, [the ganav], did not equate the honour of the servant to the honour of his Master”. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai explained that the ganav places man above G-d. Clearly, he is afraid of man, hence he tries to hide his crime from people and clearly, he is not afraid of G-d hence he is willing to steal. The gazlan on the other hand treats man and G-d equally – equally bad, but at least he does not place man ahead of G-d.

In other words, despite the fact that a gazlan causes greater hurt to another, that is not as bad as the philosophical error of placing man ahead of G-d. This is quite a claim – and one that is difficult to understand. Both a ganav and gazlan care little about G-d but at least the ganav does not accost a person. Surely such is better[1]. Just because one could care less what G-d commands is no reason to also have total disdain for another human. Two wrongs are worse than one. Not surprisingly, commentaries offer other explanations for the harsher treatment of the ganav[2].

This is not the only time Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai expressed his fear that man would fear man more than they fear G-d. As Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai lay on his deathbed his students – presumably these same students – asked their mentor for a blessing. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai responded “May the fear of heaven be upon you as the fear of man.” His students were not impressed exclaiming “is that all?” Clearly, they were expecting more profound words from their teacher. Surely, they did not need Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai to tell them about the importance of fearing G-d more than man. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai simply responded “halevai”, if only. If only man would fear G-d as he feared man. “Know, when a person commits a sin he says ‘may no man see me'” (Brachot 28b). 

Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai clearly felt a tremendous need to stress the importance of fearing G-d more than man. While such is important for all – even the thief – it is much more important for the leaders of the people. With their decisions so impactful and with so many people pulling them in all kinds of different directions it is crucial for a leader to do what is right i.e. listen to G-d as opposed to man. A leader must be willing to stand up to those whose concern is their personal interests and focus on what is good for the community at large. G-d must come before man.

There have been few, if any, more difficult decisions than the one made by Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai to give up Jerusalem and focus his efforts on rebuilding Judaism from the tiny port city of Yavne. And he was criticized for this decision by no less than Rabbi Akiva who argues he should have fought for Jerusalem. Yet Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai understood that had he asked for too much he would have received nothing (Gittin 56b).

Only those who truly place the fear of G-d above that of man should be entrusted to make decisions impacting on the community. This is no easy task. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai feared his students – the greatest sages of the day – would be incapable of doing such.

It is for good reason that each and every shabbat we bless “those who involve themselves in communal work b'emunah” should be rewarded with great blessings. Working b'emunah - a word that indicates faith in G-d –means that one's decision are based on bringing glory to G-d. Regardless of who may have hired us and to whom one reports, a Jewish leader has one boss only, The Holy One Blessed be He.

[1] We surely would not say that one who eats on Yom Kippur and gives little or no tzedakah is better that the one who eats on Yom Kippur yet gives much tzedakah, despite the fact that the latter places man above G-d.

[2] The Ben Ish Chai suggests four possible reasons for this law. I will mention the two I find most fascinating. His first suggestion is that the extra fine is due to the fact that lo tignov is one of the "Ten Commandments". He notes that people tend to take that the Ten Commandants more seriously than other mitzvot! And since the people take lo tignov more seriously, the Torah gave it a harsher punishment. (This answer is fascinating on so many levels that it warrants its own post).

His fourth suggestion – only slightly less interesting – is that since a ganav steals stealthily he is much less likely to get caught as compared to the gazlan who openly steals. He therefore is likely to steal more often. Thus, the Torah imposes a harsher punishment for those (rare) times that the ganav actually is caught.