The last century has seen the rise, fall and transformation of several major economic-political philosophies (socialism, communism, capitalism). The primary economic philosophy of the Torah is, fundamentally, ethical fairness. If one works hard and becomes rich, wonderful–just don’t forget those less fortunate.

Jewish business ethics are derived directly from the Torah. For instance, “You shall do no injustice in judgment, in length, in weight, or in measure” (Leviticus 19:35). Common sense would certainly assume that every society abides by a rule such as this. After all, no one wants to be cheated. And yet the desire to cheat is quite tantalizing. We read about crooked business dealings all the time.

In fact, in the 14th century, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (“Ba’al Ha’turim,” Spain, 1270 – c.1340) wrote, in the business section of his legal code Arba’ah Turim, that a community is required to appoint people to examine all public scales and measures and to oversee the community’s businesses. These officials, he instructed, must have the ability to fine or punish (Choshen Mishpat 231:2).

People will always look for ways to “get ahead.” But, in truth, any success they have through such immoral measures is counter-balanced on the heavenly scale. In fact, the sages in the Talmud Baba Batra, declared that “Punishment for [false] measures is more severe than the punishment for illicit sexual relations” (88b). Why? Because you can cease doing and repent from illicit relations. In order to fully repent from false measures, however, one must be able to make financial restitution to those who were cheated, and that is often very hard to do, especially when stealing from the public.

This Treat was last posted on December 28, 2009.

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