Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Does the Mouse Steal, or Does the Hole Steal? Nedarim 85 Psych of the Daf Yomi

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph explains that when untithed produce is stolen and eaten, the thief technically should not have to pay for the portion which would be tithed since the only value available to the owner was the portion that remains non-sacred. However, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi and Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Yehuda disagree about the legal response. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi holds that we fine the thief an additional payment of the sacred portion too, in order to deter his theft. Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Yehuda holds that it is more important to penalize the owner, who was lackadaisical in his responsibility (to guard the sacred produce) and who delayed setting it aside.

This bears similarity to another dispute in Gittin (45a) over if we penalize the buyer or the seller in a certain illegal transaction.  The Gemara debates whether “the mouse steals, or the hole steals”. In modern criminology, there is also is much thought given as to what actually works as a crime deterrent. Consider the situation of the rash of catalytic converter theft.  The problem requires coordination between the street thieves who smash and grab, but also the network of shady mechanics and used parts dealers, who purchase and resell these goods. So where does enforcement focus its energies, on the dealers of stolen goods or the thieves?  Similarly, in a classroom discipline scenario, is it the cheaters who must be punished, or those who let their friends cheat from them?  As it turns it, research shows that societal systems are complex, and depending on scenarios, deterrents work differently.

According to researchers Felson and Clark (Focused deterrence strategies effects on crime: A systematic review Anthony A. Braga1 | David Weisburd2,3 | Brandon Turchan1 Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2019;15:e1051. | 1 of 65 ) there are a number of principles to consider:

Often a large number of crimes are committed by a small concentrated group of outlaws. Considering our above example of catalytic converter theft, while in some locales it might be random thieves, in other itban environments it could be the effort of a particular gang or crime ring.  Thus, when there is targeted and local enforcement, it may stop the crime at its roots.  You might think that this simply causes the thieves to move onto a different area or neighborhood, but on a practical level this does not seem to usually occur.  This is because crime seems to be highly sensitive to opportunity, and opportunities vary dramatically from one area to another, even by a few blocks.

“Crime opportunities are concentrated in time and space. Dramatic differences are found from one address to another, even within a high crime area. Crime shifts greatly by hour of day and day of the week, reflecting the opportunities to carry it out. Routine activity theory and crime pattern theory are helpful in understanding the concentration of crime opportunities at particular places and times.”

Another interesting feature of crime is how it follows technology and innovation. In the savage NYC of my youth under Mayor Dinkins, cassette players were routinely stolen from cars by smashing windows.  It went so far that people would leave their car doors unlocked with a “no radio” sign on the window, begging thieves, “If you must steal, go ahead help yourself, but please don’t smash my window.” This gave birth to the meme (before we had internet and the word meme) of an image of such a car, with a “no radio” sign and a broken window.  The thief thoughtfully hand wrote an addendum after smashing the window anyhow, “just checking”. No one steals a radio anymore.  Instead, it’s an engine computer, taillight or catalytic converter.

Felson and Clark conclude with:

“Crime can be prevented by reducing opportunities. The opportunity-reducing methods of situational crime prevention fit systematic patterns and rules which cut across every walk of life, even though prevention methods must be tailored to each situation. These methods derive from rational choice theory and aim, (i) to increase the perceived effort of crime, (ii) to increase the perceived risks, (iii) to reduce the anticipated rewards, and (iv) to remove excuses for crime. Thus situational crime prevention is not just a collection of ad hoc methods, but is firmly grounded in opportunity theory. There are approaching one hundred evaluated examples of the successful implementation of situational crime prevention.”

It would seem, at least in modern urban dynamics, indeed the mouse does not steal, but rather the hole.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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