I had an expensive bike stolen from my backyard last week. Today I noticed my bike lying in someone’s yard. I now realize that I had seen the teens who live there loitering around my home right before my bike went missing.

Here is my question: Am I allowed to just climb over the fence and take my bike (using force if necessary), or am I obligated to get permission from the authorities? To keep things simple, I would rather not involve the police if I don’t need to.


When it comes to monetary issues, we follow the rule that dina demalchuta dina,1 “the law of the land is [Jewish] law,” so check with your lawyer to see if this is allowed. But assuming that it is, here is the purely halachic perspective:

It is generally forbidden to take the law into your own hands. Even a qualified judge is not supposed to judge alone, but rather with (a minimum of) two other judges. As the Mishnah states, “There is only One who judges alone,” referring to G‑d.2

Yet there are certain circumstances under which one may act on his own.

A Talmudic Dispute

The Talmud records the following incident:

Rav Chisda sent the following question to Rav Nachman: “The sages said that when one strikes another, humiliating him, the judges determine liability according to the following formula: For kneeing him, he must pay three sela; for kicking, five; and for punching him, thirteen. For hitting him with the handle of a hoe and for hitting him with the top of a hoe, what amount is one liable to pay him?”

Rav Nachman responded: “Chisda, Chisda, are you collecting a fine for humiliation in Babylonia [where judges are not authorized to collect fines]!? Tell me how the incident itself transpired.”

Rav Chisda replied: “There is a certain cistern belonging to two people whose arrangement was to alternate its use, so that every day one of them would draw from it in turn. It happened that one of them came and was drawing water on a day that was not his. His partner said to him: ‘This is my day to draw, not yours.’ His colleague disregarded him. The person whose turn it was therefore took the handle of a hoe and struck the person who was stealing his water, who then sued for damages.”

Rav Nachman said to him: “In that case, he was right to do so, and he should have hit him even a hundred times with the hoe.” Even according to the one who says that a person may not take justice into his own hands but should go to court, in a case where inaction would cause a loss, a person may take justice into his own hands.”

. . They disagree only when there is no imminent loss that may be suffered. Rav Yehuda says that a person may not take justice into his own hands; since there is no loss, he should go before the judge to have him enforce the law. Rav Nachman says that a person may take justice into his own hands. Since he is acting lawfully, as he is clearly in the right, he need not trouble himself to go before the judge to have him enforce the law.3

The halachah follows Rav Nachman that one is permitted to take justice into his own hands.4 There are, however, a number of important conditions that need to be met.

Clear as Day

It needs to be absolutely clear, to the point that this could be proven in a rabbinic court, that the other person has unlawful possession of your item. If, however, there is a dispute about the item, no one can take the item without first adjudicating the case before the court.5

It Needs to be the Actual Item

The object being taken has to be yours. You cannot just grab a different object in lieu of your stolen property or money that the person owes you.6 (For that, you need to actually go to a beth din, a rabbinic court. See some exceptions in footnote.7)

Don’t Act Like a Thief

Unless it is absolutely necessary, you should not stealthily enter the thief’s property to retrieve your property, appearing as if you yourself are the thief. Rather, you should make it clear that you claim the object as your own.8

Use of Force

One is only permitted to resort to force in an instance where it is clear that the item is yours and you cannot get the item back via other means. "If you're able to get it without force, then you yourself can be held liable for the pain and damage you cause.9

Back to Your Bike

In light of the above, if you are sure that the bike is yours, and you can even prove it in court, you would be allowed to take it—even by force, if necessary—provided that it is legal to do so where you live.

Some unsolicited advice:

If you can use this opportunity to impart a lesson to these boys (perhaps through discussing this with their parents), you would not only be getting your bike back, but doing a great mitzvah in trying to help them change their ways.