Weights and Measures in Jewish Law

Shortchanging a customer in weight or measure, even mere possession of defective weights or measures, is a punishable offense -- and a moral failing.

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Reprinted with permission from Ethics in the Market Place: A Jewish Perspective, published by The Library of Jewish Law, 2000, where extensive notes supplement the text presented here.

The Prohibition and its Source

In the [article, “Consumer Protection in Jewish Law: An Introduction,”] we cited the biblical sources for the prohibition against using defective weights and measures.

Defective weights and measures are discussed by [twelfth-century Spanish/North African philosopher and rabbi Moses ]Maimonides in his Laws of Theft:

“If one weighs with weights that are deficient by the standards agreed upon in his locality, or measures with a measuring vessel deficient by the agreed standards, he violates a negative commandment, for Scripture states (Leviticus 19:35), ‘You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in length, in weight, or in measure. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft, 7:1)

“Similarly in measurement of land, if one deceives another when measuring land, he violates a negative commandment, for when Scripture says, ‘You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in length,’ ‘in length’ refers to land measurement.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft, 7:9)

Possession of Bad Weights and Measures

It is forbidden to keep a defective measuring device in one’s possession, even if it is not being used:

“Whoever keeps in his house or in his shop a false measure or weight violates a negative commandment, for Scripture states (Deuteronomy 25:13), ‘You shall not have in your bag diverse weights.’” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft, 7:3)

For Clear and Standard Measures

Standard weights and measures are not to be prescribed unless gradations are readily apparent. Concerning this regulation, [Yehiel Michal Halevi Epstein, nineteenth-century author of] Arukh HaShulhan writes:

“The Sages established that measures should be so designed as to be recognizable at a glance, so there will be no mistakes and they will not be interchanged.” (Arukh HaShulhan, Hoshen Mishpat 231:4)

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Professor Nahum Rakover, former Deputy Attorney General of the State of Israel, is a leading scholar in the field of Jewish law and has written widely on Jewish legal topics. He compiled The Multi-Language Bibliography of Jewish Law.

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