Jewish Ethical Principles for Business

The principles of ethics embodied in Jewish legal and ethical writings apply explicitly to business situations.

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As we learn in the midrash (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, Chap. 26): “When a man is not loving in his business dealings, even if he learns Torah and studies Mishnah, people who see him say: ‘woe to so-and-so who has studied Torah! …’ Thus, through such a man, is the name of Heaven desecrated.”

Conversely, when a Jew is scrupulously honest, it not only reflects well on him; it reflects well on the entire Jewish people and on God. As we learn in the classic story about [Rabbi] Shimon ben Shetah (Palestinian Talmud, Bava Batra 2:5, folio 8c):

Shimon ben Shetah was in the flax trade. His students said to him, “Retire from the flax trade and we will buy you a donkey and you won’t have to work so hard.” They bought a donkey for him from a non-Jewish trader. As it turned out, a precious gem was hanging from its neck. They came to him and said, “From now on, you won’t have to work anymore!” He replied, “why not?” They explained, “We bought you a donkey from a non-Jewish trader and we found a precious gem hanging from its neck.” Shimon said, “And did its master know?” They replied, “no.” He said, “Go and return it…. Do you think I am a barbarian?! I want to hear the non-Jew say ‘Blessed be the God of the Jews’ more than I want all the material rewards of this world!”

The Hasidic rabbi, Rav Nachman of Kossover, taught that we should always have the Lord in our thoughts. He was asked, “Can we think of the Lord when we are engaged in buying and selling?” “Surely we can,” answered the Rabbi. “If we are able to think of business when we are praying, we should be able to think of praying when we are doing business.” (Louis Newman, The Hasidic Anthology, p. 343)

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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.