Goniff (GAH-niv) is Hebrew and Yiddish for “thief,” and has come to refer to anyone who is a swindler, a cheat or just plain dishonest.

In Yiddish parlance a theft is called a geneivah (a loanword from Hebrew), but the act of stealing is to ganveh, a formulation that imposes Germanic syntax onto the original Hebrew word.

The original Hebrew word, with the root G‑N‑V (pronounced gah-NAV), appears numerous times in the Bible.

In the Ten Commandments

The sixth of the Ten Commandments is lo tignov, “do not steal.” Look carefully and you’ll see that tignov and ganav have the same root letters. The goniff, in this case, is not someone who steals necklaces or bagels, but a kidnapper, who steals fellow human beings. We know this because the word is listed in a string of capital offenses, and elsewhere in the Bible we learn that a petty thief needs to pay for what he took (plus a fine) but is not put to death.

So what is the law of the thief?

The Goniff and the Gazlan

In Torah law there are two classes of thieves. There is the gazlan, a brazen strongman who takes what is not his, not caring who sees. The law is that he must pay back whatever he takes.

Then there is the goniff, the stealthy thief. If he is caught (but not if he turns himself in willingly), he must pay double what he took (or even more in the case of a thief who then sells or slaughters the sheep or ox that he stole).

Why the difference? The gazlan is a pretty evil guy. Fearing neither G‑d nor man, he chooses to break the law and let the chips fall where they may. But the goniff is afraid of humans, which is why he operates on the sly; however, he has no compunctions about being observed by the Master of the Universe—essentially denying the existence of Divine justice!1 In the words of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai: “May G‑d grant that you fear G‑d as much as you fear flesh and blood.”2

Stealing Hearts and Minds

The Bible calls a person who fools others, even if not actually stealing their property, as a “goniff of the heart.” A classic example would be Absalom, who as pretender to the throne of his father, King David, “stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”3 Note that in biblical Hebrew lev, which means “heart,” refers to consciousness as a whole.

In Jewish law, there are specific guidelines about geneivat daat, “theft of mind.” A typical example is inviting someone for a meal when you know they are already engaged at that time. You are scoring points, appearing generous and friendly, but knowing that it will cost you nothing. The same would apply if you opened a bottle of wine when a guest was over, and gave them the impression that you did so in their honor, when you were planning to open the bottle in any case.4

A more nefarious application of the same principle involves sellers intentionally dressing up their wares to appear better than they are: e.g., giving an old, worn tool a new paint job,5 or selling real estate whose ownership is disputed.6

The Hole and the Mouse

A final bit of Talmudic wisdom: “It is not the mouse who is the goniff, but the hole that is the goniff.”7

If you want to make sure that you stay far away from all forms of geneivah, even the most subtle ones, it’s a good idea to set up your life in the most upstanding way possible, leaving no holes that need to be plugged up.