In the world of work and finance, success and failure can be measured. Money spent and money earned, money gained and money lost are all carefully accounted for. The progress of one’s career can be tracked by income, rank, or the symbols of power and prestige.
Though Jewish culture has rarely denigrated the world of work, nor has the accumulation of wealth often been viewed with suspicion among Jews, rabbinic sources evaluate one’s business affairs first of all through an ethical “filter,” as in this classic midrash, one among many:
“‘If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, and you do what is upright in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments, and you keep all God’s laws…’ (Exodus 15:26): What does ‘doing what is upright’ mean? It means being engaged in the give-and-take of business. The verse implies that when people act in business with integrity and their fellow human beings are pleased with them, it is accounted to them as if they had fulfilled the whole entire Torah.” [Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Va-Yassa’, 1.] The midrash reads these connected phrases as a sentence: “doing what is upright” constitutes “keeping all of God’s laws.”
Intrinsic value–though not as high as the value of learning Torah or performing mitzvot–is ascribed to work itself in many classical Jewish sources. Work is valued not as the converse of an inherently evil idleness but rather with the positive goal of self-reliance. People feel shame not so much about being idle as about being indigent, and it is from the latter that we ask to be spared in these passages from the traditional Grace after Meals: “May we never find ourselves in need of gifts or loans from flesh and blood [but may we rely only on Your helping hand]…” and “May the Merciful One provides us with an honorable livelihood.” From this outlook Jewish law derives a parental obligation to provide children with an education in some skill from which they may earn a living.
The business world is competitive. The Jewish legal tradition distinguishes between fair and unfair competition and attempts to delineate the border between them. Rabbinic sources record a number of debates about the legitimacy of going into competition with an existing enterprise, and eventually draw a line between ruinous competitive practices, which are outlawed because of the degree of economic harm they cause, and those practices which fall short of driving one’s competitors out of business.
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