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A concern for ethical business practices is among the highest priorities of Jewish legal literature. Maimonides (12th century Spain/North Africa), the great Jewish legalist and philosopher, begins his exposition of the laws of courts and civil administration with an explanation of the verse in Deuteronomy (16:18), “You shall appoint magistrates and officials….” He details those civil officials’ responsibilities: “They stand before the judges; they make their rounds to the markets, squares, and shops, fixing prices, regulating weights, and correcting abuses.” The primary task of government, one may surmise, is to enforce regulations that protect customers from being taken advantage of in daily commerce. In a community with corrupt marketplaces, the foundations of justice are weak.
Biblical law requires the establishment of accurate weights and measures. The Jewish exposition of that law calls for periodic self-inspection and the appointment of an independent inspector as well. False or deceptive packaging and labeling is similarly forbidden. One who engages in them violates the broad metaphorical interpretation in Jewish sources of the biblical prohibition against “placing a stumbling-block before a blind person” by playing to consumers’ weaknesses–as well as, of course, the prohibition against lying.
Other sorts of deceptive practices are outlawed as well, so that, for example, the sale of an item at an excessively high or low price relative to its fair market price is considered ona’ah (literally, “oppression”) and under many circumstances the sale could be nullified by the injured party. Establishing what constitutes a “fair price” is not simple, but the principle is established that neither buyer nor seller must simply “beware,” with no recourse after the transaction is completed.
An extension of the rules of ona’ah reveals the acute ethical sensitivity of Jewish business regulations. The Torah verses outlawing ona’ah are interpreted as referring not only to monetary deception, but to verbal deception as well. It is thus forbidden to make the deliberate impression on a salesperson that one is interested in purchasing an item, when in fact all one wants to do is gather information with no intent to purchase. The seller may have incurred no measurable financial loss, but his or her time went to waste and the anticipation of gain was a cruel illusion. This alone is sufficient reason to forbid that practice.
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