The Torah offers two prohibitions for “stealing,” and these two prohibitions have different rules associated with them. When the Torah says lo tignovu (Lev. 19:11), this means that a type of stealing called genivah is forbidden, and when it later says lo tigzol (Lev. 19:13), it prohibits another form of stealing called gezeilah. The Torah even mandates returning the stolen goods or otherwise compensating the victim of theft twice — once concerning a ganav (Ex. 22:3) and once concerning a gazlan (Lev. 5:23). Indeed, in the Talmud’s list of twenty-four types of damages, it reckons genivah and gezeilah as two separate items (Bava Kama 4b), and Maimonides’ Sefer HaNizikin splits the Laws of Geneivah and the Laws of Gezeilah into two separate sections. So what is the difference between genivah and gezeilah, and how do these words for “stealing” differ from listim and chamas? [According to Torah tradition, the prohibition of lo tignov in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:13, Deut. 5:17) actually refers to kidnapping, not to “run-of-the-mill” stealing].
The Midrash (Ber. Rabbah 54:3) explains that the definition of gezeilah is stealing something in public or out in the open. One of the opinions cited there states that in order to be considered a gazlan one must steal in such an overt way that he does so in front of ten people. If he steals in front of only nine, he is “only” considered a ganav. Another opinion states that to be considered a gazlan a thief must come face-to-face with his victim and grab the item in question out of his hand. The ganav, on the other hand, conceals himself from his victim and steals in a stealthier, sneakier way (Bava Kama 79b). Even if the victim ends up seeing the robber, the fact that the robber tried to hide himself from him is enough for him to be considered a ganav (S’ma to Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 348:7).
Similarly, Maimonides (Laws of Geneivah 1:3) writes that a ganav is a person who takes another individual’s possessions in a clandestine way, such that the true owner does not know about it, like in the case of a pickpocket. But if he took it out in the open with violence or by force, then he is not a ganav — he is a gazlan. Elsewhere, Maimonides (Laws of Gezeilah 1:3) expands on his definition of gazlan by citing several examples: a gazlan is somebody who grabs another person’s moveable objects from his hand (see Bava Basra 34a), or he enters somebody’s property without permission and takes their stuff (see Shavuos 44b), or he overpowers their slaves or animals and makes them work for himself (see Bava Kama 97a), or he goes into somebody else’s field and eats their produce (see Bava Basra 38a).
Ernest Klein (no relation) writes that the Hebrew word gezel is related to the Arabic word jazala “cut off,” which is a violent way of ripping out an object from the hands of its rightful owner.
In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) and others explain that the biliteral root GIMMEL-ZAYIN primarily refers to “shaving” or “trimming,” which is a type of cutting that leaves some parts attached and some parts detached. Other words derived from this root include: geiz (Ps. 72:6), the grass remaining after trimming; gozez (Gen. 38:12, 31:19), the act of shearing wool from sheep; gazam, a type of grasshopper which eats some produce and leaves over the rest; geza, a tree with a truncated top; and gazit, hewn stone. Although Rabbi Pappenheim does not explicitly connect the word gezel to this two-letter root because the third letter (LAMMED) does not fit with his theory, we can still argue that since gezel is the act of stealing or robbing somebody’s possession, while leaving some of his other possessions intact, it too is related to this root.
Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 23:19) writes that gozel (“small bird”) is related to the word gezel because when one takes a small bird away from its nest, he is “severing” the connection between it and its mother, just like one who steals “severs” the connection between an item and its legitimate owner. (Of course, it is just a coincidence that the English word robin — which also refers to a small bird — is phonetically similar to robbing. Or is it?)
The Torah (Ex. 21:37) differentiates between a ganav and a gazlan by imposing special fines on the ganav. When a ganav is caught stealing he must not only pay back the value of what he stole but must pay an extra of penalty of that same value, so that in total he pays double the value of what he stole. Moreover, when a ganav steals a kosher animal and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back multiple times the value of the animal (five times for a bovine, and four times for an ovacaprine). These extra fines apply to a ganav — a stealthy thief — but not to a gazlan — an open robber.
The Talmud (Bava Kama 79b) explains that the Torah deals more harshly with the ganav than with the gazlan because the ganav’s action bespeaks an especially heretical and unacceptable worldview. While the Torah condemns any form of stealing as unacceptable, the ganav has committed an especially heinous sin by respecting man more than he respects G-d. By virtue of the fact that the ganav tries to hide his thieveries from other people, but does not care to “hide it” from G-d, he shows that he cares more about what people think than about what G-d thinks. For this reason, the Torah imposes special penalties on the ganav. The gazlan does not care about what anybody thinks — but at least he does not afford man more respect than G-d. He is therefore exempt from these penalties.
By the way, if you ever get confused between the ganav and the gazlan, you can use this neat mnemonic I heard from my fifth grade Rebbi, Rabbi A. Y. Berman: The gaNav steals at N ight (i.e. when nobody is looking), while the gazLan steals in the L ight (i.e. out in the open).
Based on an uncertainty in the Talmud (Bava Kama 57a), there is a dispute among the authorities whether an armed listim (“robber”) is considered a ganav or a gazlan. On the one hand, he steals out in the open and the victim knows about it like a gazlan, yet on the other hand, he carries a weapon with him, which suggests that he is scared of being caught, like a ganav (see Kesef Mishnah, Lechem Mishnah, and Even HaAzel to Laws of Gneivah 1:3).
The Mishnaic Hebrew word listim is derived from the Greek word leistes, which means “robber.” The Hebrew word listim/listin is really the singular form of the word, but since its ending resembles that of a word with a plural suffix, it was also borrowed to mean “multiple robbers.” Verb forms of listim were also derived from this Greek word in Rabbinic Hebrew (e.g., li’lastem means “to rob”). (The Greek –lestes is used in English as a suffix in scientific names for animals that are “predators.”)
The word chamas also appears in the Bible in the sense of “thievery” and “stealing.” For example, the Bible reports that G-d resolved to bring a flood upon the generation of the Deluge “because the land had been filled with chamas” (Gen. 6:13), which Rashi (following Sanhedrin 108a) explains refers to theft. The term chamas or cognates thereof appear some sixty times throughout the Bible, but do not always refer exclusively to “stealing.” Sometimes they are just general forms of “violence” and “injustice.” Indeed, Dr. Chaim Tawil writes that the Hebrew chamas is related to the Akkadian word hamasu which means “to oppress” or “to do wrong.”
That said, the Talmud (Bava Kama 62a) explains that a chamsan is not quite a robber. Rather, he is a coercive buyer who takes an object from his victim, but gives him money. While still considered a wrongdoer, the chamsan is not technically a robber or a thief.
In Arabic, the word chamas is related to the Hebrew word chamesh (“five”). This might be an allusion to the proverbial “five finger discount” to which thieves are privy. (The Hebrew word chamas is not etymologically connected to Hamas, the Arab terrorist organization which de facto controls the Gaza Strip, although there may be a certain thematic affinity between them.)
Interestingly, Rashi (to Yoma 39a and Ps. 71:4) and Radak (to Ps. 71:4 and in Sefer HaShorashim) write that a chometz or chamtzan is the same as a gazlan and chamsan. Radak notes that this is because of the interchangeability of the letters TZADI and SAMECH. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893) writes that chamtzan does not technically refer to a thief; rather it refers to somebody who is akin to a thief in that he took from something he rightfully deserves but took more than his due. (In Modern Hebrew, chamtzan means “oxygen,” for reasons unrelated to our discussion.)