Business Ethics & Jewish Law

Jewish law has plenty to say about conducting business: accurate weights and measures, overcharging, verbal deception, false packaging and much more.

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Abbreviated from Insight Israel 3:1 (October 2002), published by The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Some bibliographic references that have been eliminated here, and a bibliography on Jewish business ethics, can be found in the original version of this article, available on-line. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

Accurate weights and measures

We are admonished in the Book of Leviticus (19:35-36): “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, an honest weight, an honest ephah [dry measure], and an honest hin [liquid measure]“.

The Mishnah (Bava Batra 5:10) rules that: “The wholesaler must clean out his measures once every thirty days and the householder once every twelve months... The retailer cleans his measures twice a week and polishes his weights once a week; and cleans out his scale before every weighing.”

Throughout the Talmudic period, the rabbis appointed agronomoi—a Greek word for market commissioners—whose job it was to inspect measures and weights and to fix prices for basic commodities (Babylonian Talmud [=B.T.], Bava Batra 89a). The agronomoi eventually disappeared, but the ideal was still there as late as the nineteenth century when Rabbi Israel Salanter [the founder of the musar (ethical self-improvement movement) wrote: “As the rabbi must inspect periodically the slaughtering knives of the shochtim [slaughterers] in town to see that they have no defect, so must he go from store to store to inspect the weights and measures of the storekeepers.”

Today, these laws are just as applicable as they were in biblical times. Wholesalers and retailers must check their scales and cash registers on a regular basis, not just because civil law demands it, but also because Jewish law requires it.

Ona'at Mamon (Monetary Deception)

This concept, too, is based on a verse in Leviticus (25:14): “When you sell anything to your neighbor or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not deceive one another.”

This verse clearly refers to monetary deception. The rabbis of the Talmud used it as a basis for a series of specific laws on the subject (B.T. Bava Metzia 49b and 50b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah,Laws of Sales, Chapter 12). They ruled that if the price charged was more than one sixth above the accepted price, the sale is null and void and the seller must return the buyer’s money. If it was exactly one sixth more, the transaction is valid, but the seller must return the amount overcharged. If it was less than a sixth, the transaction is valid and no money need be returned. Needless to say, these laws are still very relevant today. It is permissible for a Jew to make a fair profit; it is not permissible to price gouge and rob the customer blind. Such behavior is ona’at mamon, or monetary deception.

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.