Avraham said to Lot, “Let us not have friction between me and you, and
between my herdsmen and yours. We are brothers, after all.” (Bereshith
The friction between Avraham and Lot was caused initially by Lot’s
herdsmen, who allowed their animals to graze in fields that did not belong
to them. This type of carelessness was not exclusively the behavior of
Lot’s herdsmen. Indeed, it is impossible for any shepherd to prevent his
animals from grazing in pastures that belong to others unless he takes the
precautions that Avraham took, muzzling every one of his animals.(1) For
this reason, herdsmen are generally labeled as thieves, and our Sages call
them “rasha” – “wicked.”(2) This label disqualifies them from serving as
a witness, as the Torah says, “Do not join forces with a wicked person to
be a corrupt witness.”(3)
In most cases, a thief can rectify his actions by returning the objects he
stole, but the shepherd is in a far more precarious situation. By allowing
his animals to graze freely he has stolen from so many people that he is
in the category of gozel eth harabim (one who steals from the public).
Since there is no conceivable way for him to make an accounting of those
from whom he stole, it is virtually impossible for him to rectify his
Our Sages have prescribed that under such circumstances the proper form of
repentance is for the shepherd/thief to donate the amount of money he
stole to be used for communal needs. When he does so, it is likely that
the victims or their heirs will benefit from the services he has financed,
so he can be considered in some way to have returned what he stole.(4)
Someone who wishes to rectify an act of stealing from the public may
provide for people’s physical needs, such as food and water,(5) or for
their spiritual needs, such as Torah literature.(6) However, since the
thief has not actually returned the money he owes and it is questionable
whether the victims will ever be compensated, the funds he donates for the
sake of public welfare cannot be considered complete repentance for his
many acts of theft.(7)
1. See the article entitled “Human Nature,” (page 140) on Bereshith
2. Bava Metzia 5b. See also Avodah Zara 26a and Choshen Mishpat 525:5 for
a glimpse of the severe ramifications of a shepherds’ habitual theft.
3. Shemoth 23:1.
4. Bava Kama 94b; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 366:2.
5. Beitza 29a.
6. Ahavas Chesed 50:1, citing the Sh’lah.
7. Tosefta, Bava Kama 10:8; Rashbam, Bava Bathra 88b. See also Shulchan
Aruch and Semah 409:1, who state that because of the problems mentioned
here, it is forbidden to raise sheep in inhabited areas within the Land of
Israel. See also Mishpatei HaTorah 1:75, who rules that on a kibbutz,
where the property is communally owned, and there is an express agreement
among the members that the livestock can graze anywhere on the kibbutz,
this prohibition does not apply.