lo tasig g’vul rei’ekha – Don’t move (or move back) your fellow’s landmark.
So begins the Torah’s statement regarding the inviolability of boundary markers. Here’s the full verse: “You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” [Deuteronomy 19:14]
Maimonides summarizes the Talmudic understanding of this norm: “If a man removed his neighbor’s landmark and included some of his area into his own, even as much as a finger’s length, he is deemed a robber if he did it forcibly, and a thief if he removed it secretly. If he removed a landmark in Eretz Yisrael, he has broken two prohibitions: robbery or theft, and: ‘You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks’ (Deuteronomy 19:14). This last prohibition is applicable only in Eretz Yisrael, since it is written in the same verse: ‘In the inheritance which you will hold in the land…'” [Laws of Theft 7:11]
Our tradition, as is its wont, also reads this command in metaphorical terms. Bible scholar Jeffrey Tigay explains that “in halakhic literature this admonition against encroachment was widely expanded to encompass other types of misappropriation, such as wrong attributions of rabbinic dicta, and eventually to copyright violations.” [JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy, p. 183]
I’m inclined to follow that impulse to read figuratively, and to recognize in the Torah’s command a very suggestive piece of guidance and direction. There are many ‘types of misappropriation’ to ponder from the political to the personal and beyond. National borders and their significance certainly come to mind. Personal boundaries, their protection and their all too frequent violation, come to mind as well.
Respect for appropriate limits is part of the foundation of rabbinic thinking and Jewish ethics. Honoring one another’s boundaries is the starting point of ethical living; knowing one’s own limits is the starting point of healthy living. Hasagat g’vul – litererally ‘the moving of landmarks’ – is the rabbinic phrase for boundary violation writ large. One short verse in the Torah; one very large ethical concern that touches our lives on every level, every day.