Torah Portion: Mishpatim
If a person steals… (Shemos 21:37).
It is a positive commandment to judge a thief in accord with the laws outlined in the Torah portion [that begins]: If a person steals, etc. (Shemos 21:37). “Stealing” refers to when a person takes something of value from his fellow, from his house or from his purse, when the householder does not see and does not know, or any similar manner.
The root of the mitzvah of executing justice is well-known.
The laws of the mitzvah include, for example: the thief is to pay double the item’s value (Shemos 22:3); and if he stole an ox or sheep and then slaughtered or sold it, he is to pay four and five times the value (ibid. v. 37). Also, if the thief does not have the funds with which to pay, he is sold into servitude for his theft — but only if his value is equal or less than the value of the item stolen, but if he is worth more [as a slave] than the value of the thing stolen, then he is not sold.
This mitzvah applies to men who are qualified to judge [such cases]. Wherever there is an ordained beis din in the Land of Israel, it can impose the payment of four and five times the theft. But if they are not ordained, they do not have the power to impose [these penalties] but only to return the stolen object or its cash value. However, selling the thief himself into servitude [in order to pay for the stolen items] does not apply even when there is an ordained beis din, except for when the law of Yovel is in effect.