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Exodus 22:1 speaks about the robber who was found "tunnelling in" to someone's house (vis-a-vis self-defense). Is that just a figure of speech, or did they actually go to that much trouble? (What were houses like back then?) I'd say try the door first ...

I since found that R' Hirsch and others say the word "machteret" simply means "breaking in", not necessarily tunnelling. But for those who say it means tunnelling (e.g. Radak) ... how would they explain?

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The law of a robber who is found tunneling in to someone's house is found in the 8th perek of Sanhedrin. The meforshim there also discuss this question. – Chanoch Oct 8 '10 at 15:42

Well you have to remember that in those days houses were not quite like they are today. The floors were earthen and they (the houses) were generally only 1 story high. So the simplest way to get into a house is to dig under the wall. Going through the front door is problematic: a) it's in a location where it's super-easy for the owner to notice (squeak) b) it might be locked c) neighbors may notice.

[if you really think it's so farfetched, I believe this exact method is used to steal the pearl in The Pearl]

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Pure speculation here, since I don't have archaeological evidence to support this idea, but tunneling may also have been simpler (quieter, quicker, less noticeable) than breaking through a door. Picture a dog tunneling under a fence to get out of a backyard, not Andy Dufresne tunneling through concrete walls to escape Shawshank. Now try picturing a battering ram breaking down a heavy wooden door with a bar laid across it horizontally to keep it closed, not some secret agent slipping a credit card into the crack between the door and the door frame to release the latch. Which method do you think is easier?

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They didn't have windows? – Shaul Behr May 22 '11 at 8:42

As you know there is a Ganav and a Gazlan. A Ganav is someone who sneaks in and tries not to be seen. a Gazlan doesn't give a hoot. The Posuk is talking about a Ganav who tries to come in a way that he will not get caught.

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