Last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, had the pinnacle religious experience of revelation at Mt. Sinai. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, jumps off that mountain and into the minutia, into the collection of laws pertaining to daily living. On such regulation caught my eye: When a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep (Exodus 21:37).
Scholar Ibn Ezra points out that if the ox or sheep are found alive, the thief only pays double. Perhaps he will fear the extra punishment, repent, and return what he stole, Ibn Ezra rationalizes.
But why a four or five-fold penalty?
Philo tries to apply logic: The ox contributes more to man than the sheep. The latter provides man with four benefits: milk, cheese, wool, and lambs; the ox, five: milk, cheese, calves, ploughing, and threshing.
Ibn Ezra recognizes that the punishment should increase as the skill of the thief increases, perhaps to offset the instances of practices likely present: The penalty for ox stealing is heavier because the thief cannot hide it as easily as a sheep. Only an expert thief can execute such an operation.
Rashi’s commentary comes out of left field. Preserving a text from Mekilta in the name of Yochanan ben Zakkai, he says: “God takes pity on the honor of those created in God’s image. An ox walks on its own, and the thief need not degrade himself by carrying it; hence he pays five oxen. But the thief who degrades himself by carrying a sheep need only pay four sheep.”
In this view, our Torah takes seriously the feelings of every human being — even those inclined to steal oxen.