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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We are all familiar with these kinds of false packaging. A wholesaler takes an inferior brand of shirt and puts on Pierre Cardin labels. You buy a box of perfect-looking tomatoes or strawberries, only to discover upon opening the box at home that they were packaged with the bad spots facing down. And we all know how used cars are touched up and polished for the sole purpose of overcharging the customer. These are all good examples ofgeneyvat da’at, clearly forbidden by Jewish law.

"Putting a Stumbling Block before the Blind"

We would call [this] “giving someone a bum steer.” This law is based on Leviticus 19:14): “You shall not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God, I am the Lord”. Our Sages interpreted this verse in a very broad fashion. In a midrash on that verse, Sifra [another early midrash collection] says:

“ ‘You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind’—before someone who is blind in that particular matter…. Don’t say to your neighbor ‘sell your field and buy a donkey,’ when your whole purpose is to deceive him and buy his field. And if you claim, ‘But I gave him good advice!’ [Remember,] this is something which is hidden in the heart, [and therefore] the end of the verse says: ‘but you shall fear your God, I am the Lord.’ ”

Once again, the law of the stumbling block can be readily applied to modern situations: a real estate agent should not dupe a young couple into buying a home with structural faults simply in order to make a fast buck. A stockbroker should not sell his client a bad investment just to collect the commission. A salesman should not convince his customer to buy an expensive item he really has no use for. These are all considered “a stumbling block before the blind” about which we are warned “and you shall fear your God, I am the Lord.”

Taxes and Tax Evasion

Considering the scope of Jewish business law, it is not urprising that it also has a clear opinion regarding tax evasion. Eighteen hundred years ago the [Talmudic sage] Shemuel established the legal principle that in civil matters dina d’malkhuta dina—“the law of the land is the law” (B.T. Bava Kama 113a). In its discussion of this principle, the Talmud specifically includes taxation as a secular law that must be followed. This, for example, is the way Maimonides summarizes this law (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft 5:11):

“[…] but a tax fixed by the king of 33% or 25% or any fixed sum… a person who avoids paying such a tax is a transgressor because he is stealing the king’s portion, regardless of whether the king is Jewish or not.”

So we see, Jewish law requires us to pay our taxes in a scrupulous fashion because in civil matters “the law of the land is the law.”

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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.