Crime fills the world –– ותמלא הארץ חמס


This is the verse in which God tells Noach that the world must be destroyed and why. Elsewhere in the commentary, the Me’am Lo’ez says that the Hebrew word [ארץ/aretz; “land” or “earth”], which I’ve translated here as “world,” signifies inhabited land areas, thereby excluding destruction of fish and sea creatures. Were they to be included, the Hebrew would have been [עולם/olam].


Why must the world be destroyed? Because it is filled with crime (חמס/Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s translation). In the piece below, I’ve changed “crime” to “injustice” — another valid meaning of the Hebrew, and one which better fits the commentary. The verse then means that God informs Noach that there will be a catastrophic flood because the world is filled with injustice.

What constitutes “injustice?”

“In many cases, this injustice took very subtle forms. A farmer would bring a load of fruit to the market to sell it and make a small profit. The corrupt citizens would find ways to eat all the fruit without paying. Each one would behave as a customer; while he and the farmer were haggling over the price, he would begin nibbling on the fruit [i.e. as if to test its quality]. Once he had eaten his fill, he would find some excuse not to buy anything. He would complain that the fruit was not good, or that the price was not right; even if he paid, he would do so with worthless, counterfeit money. [2]
This was an extremely common practice. If the farmer tried to collect for the fruit that had been eaten, the other would reply, ‘I was only tasting your merchandise, to see if it was good. Everyone does it.’ If the case was brought before the courts, this was considered a valid defense. The wheels of justice were set against the common man, allowing him to be robbed legally. [3]
God said, ‘The plaintiff cries out, but no one gives him justice. But I probe man’s innermost thoughts, and I know there was an intent to steal’.”  [4]

If the farmer brought his fruit to market, and someone grabbed a piece and tried to run away with it — that would be stealing. Assuming the thief was caught, the law would (or should) handle him/her accordingly.

But the commentators are saying here that the “crime” or “injustice” was “subtle” — i.e. cunning; less easily determined. 

“Everyone does it.” Even today, I’ve seen people in supermarkets eat pieces of fruit — especially grapes. The grapes are bagged, but the bags are easily opened and re-closed. I have numerous times seen adults/older people open the bag and take a few grapes for a “snack” — then keep going as if nothing happened. They didn’t even seem to consider it “stealing.” 

It reminds me, too, of a restaurant that used to exist in the San Diego area named “The King’s Table.” It was a buffet/all-you-can-eat restaurant. People would bring concealed bags and walk out with more food than they had paid to eat. The store finally went out of business.

Years ago, I lived near Inwood Hill Park in northern Manhattan. Coming home one day in June, I saw a woman walking out of the park with an arm-load of tiger lilies that she had cut from the park to take back to her apartment. Not just one flower, but an overflowing armful. She looked right at me as if she had done nothing wrong. This was stealing, too — of public property.

The commentary describes a society in which all but the coarsest kind of thievery is tolerated and endorsed. This is no “society” at all. A “society,” to be called such, exists for the good and the protection of all of its members. “Justice” is what creates and guarantees peace in a society; without justice, there can be no peace — only fear and insecurity.

“Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say,
‘By three things the world endures: Justice, Truth, and Peace’. [5]
[About which]
Rabbi Muna said,
‘The three are one,
because if justice is done, truth has been effected and peace brought about;
and all three are mentioned in one verse, as it’s stated,
‘Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.’ [6]

Wherever there’s true justice, there’s peace (and wherever there’s true peace, there’s justice).” [7]

Thus, the “injustice” here which, in God’s eyes, requires that the inhabited world be destroyed, is not simply the loss of a piece of fruit. It’s the fear and insecurity that thievery creates when it’s institutionalized in custom and law. It’s the loss of a peaceful society or any hope for one.

The Hebrew word translated here as “crime” is [חמס/chamas]. This is the same word found transliterated elsewhere as “Hamas” — the organization that wages terrorism against Israel. More than “crime,” it means (in Hebrew): “injustice, plunder,violence.” 

“According to the Gesenius Hebrew lexicon, the Arabic cognate of the Hebrew word ‘chamas’ means ‘warlike valour’ (noun form) or ‘to be active, brave, constant’ (verb form).” [8]

All crime or injustice is an act of violence, too. 

If so when one man eats another’s fruit under false pretenses, kal v’homer, it’s even more true when powerful individuals, politicians and corporations abuse law and social norms to serve their own purposes, regardless of and indifferent to the pain and suffering they cause. All the while declaring their legal and moral right to do so!

It is an injustice, and an act of violence, not only to the “farmer” today, but to the children and children’s children who will have to live with the harm that has been caused.

What upsets me most today is that the same ones causing the harm vehemently defend their right to do so — sometimes even denying the harm itself.

“Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.” [9]

We’ve all seen, time and again, how true this can be.

But we’re reassured: God knows the intent.

An unjust and thereby violent society cannot continue indefinitely.


[1] Bereishith/Gen. 6:13
[2] Bereishith Rabbah 31
[3] Rabbi Mosheh ibn Chaviv
[4] Culi, Rabbi Yakov; Me’am Lo’ez; Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, trans.; vol. I, p. 341; © 1977 Moznaim Publishing Corp.
[5] Pirkei Avot 1:18 (Soncino)
[6] Zachariah/Zech. 8:16
[7] Mishnah 2 from Perek Ha-Shalom
[9] Guthrie, Woody; The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd