“Establishing a Truly Ethical Society: Honesty in Business”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kedoshim is renowned for its many revolutionary ethical pronouncements. It is surely one of the most important parashiot of the Torah, and serves as a cornerstone for the moral and ethical practices found in our religion.

In Leviticus 19:35, the Torah tells us, “Lo ta’ah’soo ah’vehl ba’mish’paht, ba’mee’dah, ba’mish’kahl, ooh’vah’m’soo’rah.” You may not commit perversion in justice in measure of length, weight or volume. In verse 36, the admonition continues: “Moz’nay tzedek, av’nay tze’dek, ay’faht tze’dek, v’heen tze’dek yeeh’yeh lah’chem.” You shall have correct scales, correct weights, correct dry measures and correct liquid measures. I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you forth from the land of Egypt. You shall observe all My decrees and all My ordinances and you shall perform them, I am the L-rd.

The Midrash in Torat Kohanim notes that an exhortation such as this, not to commit a perversion in justice, is usually directed at jurists who sit in judgment of others. It is rather unusual for such a pronouncement to be directed at business people, workers in a shop or farmers in the field, clearly implying that falsifying weights or measures is as evil as a judge who perverts judgment!

From these few verses in our Torah we get a very clear picture of how strongly Judaism feels about unprincipled behavior in general and dishonesty in business in particular. This theme is even more profoundly underscored in Deuteronomy 25:16, where the Torah declares: “For all who do such things are an abomination unto the L-rd.”

So grave is the transgression, that dishonesty in business is viewed as undermining one of the fundamental principles of Judaism: the Exodus from Egypt. After all, G-d redeemed the Israelites from a land where they had suffered injustice. How perfidious would it be for those who themselves had been victims, to behave dishonestly in their dealings with one another or with strangers (Torat Kohanim).

Many verses in parashat Kedoshim focus on various types of flagrant theft (not stealing; not dealing falsely; not lying to one another [Leviticus 19:11]; not oppressing a neighbor; robbery and failure to pay wages promptly [Leviticus 19:13]). By focusing on the mitzvah of honest weights and measures, the Torah now places the spotlight on a more subtle kind of deception that is far more difficult to detect.

Jews are cautioned to be exceedingly careful about weights and measures. One who uses a cord for measuring distance should not employ the same cord for winter and summer because the atmosphere may cause it to shrink or expand (Baba Metzia 51b). A salesperson who adds columns of figures is required to be meticulous in his calculations. Weights must be made of materials that cannot rust because rust adds unfair weight. One is not permitted to retain false weights or measures in one’s home even though they are not used in commerce and do not have the imprimatur of the government, the fear being that a storekeeper in a rush may take the wrong weights and measure (Baba Metzia 59b). The rabbis were so critical of people who used false weights and measures that they insisted that dishonest merchants were more blameworthy than those who committed incest and immorality (Sanhedrin 81a).

So great is the Ibn Ezra’s (R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) concern for probity in commerce that he questions whether civilization can remain intact if justice is perverted. The Or HaChayim (commentary on the Pentateuch by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R’Chaim Ibn Attar, 1696-1743) expands on the principles of injustice that are associated with false weights and measures and applies them to all types of deception. The Ba’al HaTurim (c.1275-1340, Jacob ben Asher, Germany and Spain, famed halakhist, author of a comprehensive commentary on the Torah) goes even further, stating that one cannot pretend to serve G-d while at the same time deceive another human being, and that one who violates the laws of just weights is considered to be in rebellion against the entire body of the mitzvot in the Torah!

The rabbis in Talmudic times placed great emphasis on the laws that applied to commercial life. There were laws that governed the behavior between employer and employee and the duties of employees to their employers, laws regulating which prices are legitimate and which constitute overcharging, rules advising how false weights and measures are to be avoided, how business contracts are to be drawn up, how conditions of sale are to be made binding, and what constitutes fair and unfair competition. The famous 4th century Babylonian sage, Rava, said that the first question that G-d will ask each person on Judgment Day is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” (Shabbat 31a).

The second century Palestinian teacher, Rabbi Judah, forbade shopkeepers from distributing corn and nuts to children as a means of enticing customers to enter their stores (Bava Metzia 60a). The law was laid down that a grain merchant must wipe clean his measuring vessels at least once in thirty days so that the exact measure is always sold, and not less (Bava Batra 88a).

Citing the verse in Deuteronomy 6:18, “And thou shalt do that which is right and good in the sight of the L-rd,” the great Spanish commentator Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Ramban, 1194-1270) argues that before contemplating any business venture, a man should not only make certain that all aspects of the enterprise are legal and that the business will be to his advantage, but must also consider that it be good and right in G-d’s eyes.

Thus, according to the strict letter of the law, a landowner may dispose of his property any way he sees fit. But the Talmud, in Bava Metzia 108a-b, argues that the landowner who intends to sell his field must always extend the first option to buy his field to the man who owns the adjoining field, provided the man is prepared to pay the asking price, since he will benefit more than any other purchaser.

The medieval Bible commentator Recanati (Menachem Ben Benjamin, 1223-1290, Italian rabbi and Bible commentator) sums up the powerful lessons that can be learned from the laws of just weights and measures, by noting that for scales to be accurate, both parts must be perfectly parallel. So must it be with every human being who must be well balanced and not go to extremes but remain on the middle road.

Very often we are asked, “Who is an observant Jew?” The answer usually given is that an observant Jew is one who abides by the laws of Shabbat, Kashruth, and family purity. It’s time that we update this definition and reword it to state that truly “Observant Jews” are those who observe Shabbat, Kashruth, family purity and are honest in business. After all, this is exactly the lesson that parashat Kedoshim imparts.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Memorial Day, will be observed this year on the 26th of Nisan. Observances begin on Wednesday evening April 30th and continue on Thursday, May 1st.