“The Great Real Estate Swindle–Its Implications”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, the Torah introduces a fundamental law of honesty that has profoundly impacted on the practice of proper business ethics and the Jewish understanding of economics.

In Deuteronomy 19:14, we read: “Lo ta’seeg g’vul ray’ah’chah,” It is forbidden to move the boundary of your neighbor’s field. The primary implication of this law is that a land owner in ancient Israel may not stealthily change the boundaries of his land in order to illegally appropriate his neighbor’s property. Since the latter part of the verse refers specifically to the land of Israel, the prohibition is understood to apply in particular to the prohibition of illicitly transferring land in ancient Israel from one tribe to another.

In rabbinic literature, this Torah prohibition is known as “Hasagat G’vul,” encroaching on and/or usurping another’s property. Although the commandment technically deals with land that is unscrupulously taken by changing boundary lines, the prohibition has many implications and ramifications. Of course, one would have thought that the prohibition of changing boundary lines would be subsumed under the violation of theft. The fact that the Torah lists it as a separate statute implies that seizing land illegally in Israel is regarded as a double violation of both theft and Hasagat G’vul.

Bachya ben Asher (1263-1340, of Aragon, known for his commentary on the Pentateuch) and the Abarbanel (Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator, 1437-1508) view the prohibition of infringing on the property rights of others as an attempt to defy G-d and His divine intent and purpose. G-d, the Designer of the world, has allotted to each of the world’s inhabitants their rightful portions. Any attempt to change that divine plan is to be regarded as a brazen act of defiance of the Al-mighty.

The Alshich (a popular commentary on the bible by R’ Moshe Alshich of Safed, 1508-1593?) also sees Hasagat G’vul as constituting interference with G-d’s plan. He adds, however, that diminishing the property of others by moving land boundaries could lead to anarchy should this practice ever become an accepted pattern of behavior in society. Furthermore, everything belongs to G-d. If G-d wishes to broaden the boundaries of a person’s property, He will do so in a natural and legal way.

The rabbis of the Talmud apply the law of Hasagat G’vul to daily life in numerous ways. For instance, not only is plagiarism forbidden, but even citing another person’s opinion without attribution is unacceptable. The rabbis go so far as to say that one who is careful to always attribute the proper sources brings redemption to the world (Megillah 15a). The Ethicists recommend that a person must be careful about attributing statements to the proper sources even when taking notes at lectures or Torah classes (Sefer Chassidim 5:87).

In the realm of economics, the various applications of Hasagat G’vul have had a profound impact on the Jewish notion of fair trade and competition. While Judaism looks favorably upon competition in many realms, unfair and cutthroat competition is frowned upon and prohibited. Therefore, one is not permitted to establish a competing business in a neighborhood or environment that cannot sustain two such businesses. Similarly, a storekeeper is not permitted to belittle a competitor’s product, nor is a proprietor permitted to entice children into his store by offering them sweets and candies.

Although when it comes to business and unfair competition Judaism is very strict about the application of the rules of Hasagat G’vul, there is one realm where Judaism permits, indeed promotes, “unfair,” even cutthroat competition–that is in the realm of education and scholarship. In an amazing statement cited in the Talmud, Baba Bathra 21a, the rabbis state: “Kin’aht sof’rim tar’beh choch’mah,” Competition among scholars increases knowledge and promotes scholarship.

Although unfair competition is prohibited in other professions, in a remarkable passage, Maimonides (the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) states that this is not true with the teaching of Torah. Maimonides, in the Mishnah Torah, Laws of Torah Study 2:7, states: “If a teacher of children opens a schoolroom next to another teacher’s schoolroom, hoping either to enroll other children or to attract some of his colleague’s students, the colleague may not protest against him [claiming the new teacher has encroached on his territory]. Citing a verse in Isaiah 42:21, The L-rd desires for Israel’s righteousness that the Torah be made great and glorious, Maimonides argues that rivalry in education will redound to the children’s benefit, since competing teachers will try harder and the students will learn more Torah.

It is a source of constant amazement how seemingly innocuous verses in the Bible frequently become wellsprings of infinite and revolutionary wisdom, as the layers are peeled off and the underlying and expanded concepts are revealed and elucidated.

May you be blessed.