Author Archives: Dr. Meir Tamari

Dr. Meir Tamari

About Dr. Meir Tamari

Dr. Meir Tamari, former chief economist in the office of the Governor of the Bank of Israel, is director of the Center for Business Ethics at the Jerusalem College of Technology. His books include Al Chet: Sins in the Marketplace (Jason Aronson) and Jewish Values in Our Open Society: A Weekly Torah Commentary (Jason Aronson).

Copyright Protection in Jewish Law

While the legal basis is different from that of copyright law in most modern nations, Jewish law developed its own mechanism for preventing others from republishing someone else’s work. Unlike Rabbi Mordechai Bennet’s ruling, cited in this article, copyright protection explicitly prevents others from copying–without reference to whether the publisher (or author) has sold out his first edition, recouped his investment, or decided to discontinue further printing and selling (even if this hinders “the work of Heaven.”) The author of this article refers to print publications and videocassette tapes, but rabbinic authorities have applied the principles of his argument to other media as well, including computer software.Reprinted with permission from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Jason Aronson).

The advent of printing created a new Jewish industry, the writing and publishing of books for a mass market. With increased standards of living, this has become even more pronounced in our present society, together with the proliferation of radio and video cassettes. In all its forms, the publishing industry means an increased supply of knowledge that is to the public benefit. Judaism’s insistence on Torah study, not merely as something desirable or important, but as a perpetual religious obligation on every Jew, irrespective of his age, education, or economic status, makes the use of this increased supply of knowledge an essential ingredient of Jewish life.
Unlimited competition would increase this supply and lower its costs, thus making extensive Jewish education possible and so contributing to the public welfare. On the other hand, authors would be fearful of writing. Entrepreneurs, moreover, would be wary of investing in publishing or marketing of books and cassettes, in fear of not being able to recoup their investment, including their profits, owing to fierce competition. So the custom of haskamot, rabbinical decrees forbidding competitors from republishing books without the consent of the author and the publisher, became common. This has been extended by present-day authorities to include tapes and cassettes.

Theft in the World of Business

Some acts are clearly forms of theft, but what about the borderline cases? An expert applies Jewish law on theft to some workplace scenarios and shows its theological underpinnings. Reprinted with permission from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Jason Aronson).

“Who is a thief? One who stealthily takes money [or an asset] that belongs to another without the knowledge [or consent] of the owner; for example, he who puts his hand into the pocket of another and takes out his money, without the owner being aware of it. However, one who publicly takes [another’s property] by force, and against the owner’s will, is not a thief but a gazlan, a robber” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft 1:3,4).  In accordance with this definition, Maimonides includes within the laws of theft also fraud through weights and measures, as well as forbidding the buying of stolen ethics

In almost all countries today, legislation exists to prosecute thieves and to prevent theft. Similarly, weights and measures are regulated in many countries by public authorities, and infractions carry penalties, thus protecting society against abuse. The halakhic [Jewish legal] rules, therefore, might seem superfluous were it not for the insistence that theft refers to stealthy and secret acts. Most economic crimes are conducted in exactly this atmosphere.

A whole area of accepted business practices exists within which the distinction between moral and immoral acts is blurred. Gray areas develop within which the individual operates without being able to discuss openly what forms of behavior are permissible. In this secretive atmosphere, a pattern of underground anti-ethical actions is easily developed. Here the rabbinic discussion of theft, stealth, and secretive crimes is a pertinent one as it creates a moral climate within which people are able to operate ethically.

Perhaps two examples will suffice to make clear the halakhic distinction between permissible and nonpermissible actions that may be considered to be theft.

Misleading Advice in Judaism

An expert in Jewish business ethics explores the ramifications of the “stumbling block”  (lifnei ivver) ban as applied to the contemporary financial world. Here Dr. Tamari addresses issues that have arisen in prominent scandals in multinational corporations whose accountants acted both as auditors, responsible to the public, and as business consultants, responsible to the corporate client. (This is the second of two articles on applying this principle. The first is “Assisting the Perpetrator of an Evil Deed.”)  Reprinted with permission from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Jason Aronson).

[One] view of the lifnei ivver concept refers to the injunction of giving misleading advice. This is not the same as providing business consultancy that results in a loss, but refers to the kind of information in which the recipient is blind either to the final effects of the advice or to the special interest that the consultant has in such advice. Consultants and advisers such as accountants, lawyers, insurance agents, investment advisers, and stockbrokers would seem to be obligated to review the advice given to their clients in order to obviate the possibility of putting a stumbling block in the path of the blind.

The Midrash relates to lifnei ivver by enjoining us, “Do not offer another advice that is detrimental to him. Do not tell him to leave a town early in the morning, knowing full well that there is a danger of him being attacked by robbers, nor [tell him] to leave in the afternoon, knowing that this will cause him to lose his way. Do not tell him, ‘Sell your field and buy a donkey’ when you intend to buy a field [and Rashi adds: to sell a donkey].” (Sifra to Leviticus 19:4)

special offerUnderlying the simple example provided by the Midrash and the commentators is an important and primary injunction, relevant to the whole gamut of financial and advisory services. In view of the modem explosion of these industries, lifnei ivver becomes more important perhaps than ever before in economic history. A number of examples of its present-day relevance should be considered here.

Insider Trading in Jewish Ethics

Some acts are clearly forms of theft, but what about the borderline cases? An expert applies Jewish law on theft to some workplace scenarios and shows its theological underpinnings. “Insider trading” refers to the practice of taking unfair advantage of knowledge about a company’s inner workings not available to the general public by trading in the company’s shares or in bonds it has issued. Reprinted with permission from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Jason Aronson).

What is commonly known as insider trading is in effect the use of information regarding the present or future prospects of activities of a corporation. Business information falls, broadly speaking, into two groups. One is perfectly legitimate, but legislation prevents the use of the other. There is no argument, legal or moral, against entrepreneurs gathering information regarding economic trends in the market or in regard to a specific corporation and then operating in accordance with such information. All business activity requires the collection of data, and all decisions will be made in the light of such data.

insider tradingThe problem arises only when such information is gathered from sources only available to some, either on the basis of their positions or as a result of their special relationships with the source of the information. This insider information places all the other participants in the market at a disadvantage, which they cannot overcome by their own efficiency or efforts.

Regulating Insider Trading

In order to provide protection against such unfair practices, some countries have legislated against the use of insider trading. Others, in view of the difficulties involved in distinguishing between insider information and legitimate forms of information, have ignored the issue. Implied in such a policy is the assumption that anyone engaged in the stock market should be able to discern the use of such information and protect himself against its misuse. “If you cannot stand the heat, keep out of the kitchen”or “let the buyer beware” would seem to be the basis for this assumption.

Assisting the Perpetrator of an Evil Deed

Reprinted with permission from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Jason Aronson).

Blocking the Path of the Blind

There are acts in commerce and business that, although there is neither theft nor fraud, either of price or quality, nevertheless present moral problems. It may well be that there is no financial damage, but the action may not be permissible. In the main they are directed at the effect on the spiritual and moral well being of one the parties.

The Jewish frame of reference for dealing with these issues is the biblical injunction “You shall not put a stumbling block in the path of the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). In interpreting this verse the Rabbis did not see it as referring to the prevention of placing physical objects in the path of a blind man. That was understood as part of the natural morality common to all mankind. The Torah comes to add dimensions, divinely revealed, to this natural morality, and so lifnei ivver has to be understood as having wider ramifications. Indeed the Sages understood lifnei ivver as referring to the giving of unwise business advice to someone or the supply, through perfectly legal transactions, of goods that are to the buyer’s moral detriment.

The emphasis is on the moral detriment of the recipient. It is true that one may not sell or give another goods that are physically harmful to him, nor may one, it may be assumed, advertise or encourage him to buy them from somebody else. This would include the production and sale of cigarettes or drugs. However it is not necessary to apply lifnei ivver here. Halakhically, a man may not cause damage to his own or another’s body or to his property, either through the body or through the misuse of property. Such injunction comes under the category of nezek, damages, and the injured party has recourse to the rabbinic court. Lifnei ivver, it would seem, refers to a different category of actions primarily affecting the moral well being of both parties.

Judaism on Greed

Excerpted from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1995 by Jason Aronson, Inc.

The effects of greed and the fear of uncertainty, which lead to economic crime and theft, may be limited by the understanding of God’s role as the real provider of all the needs of His creatures. This, however, is not sufficient to create a moral economic system. All too often, faith in God’s bounty as satisfying all the needs of men leads to an evasion of social responsibilities. This piety can easily degenerate into the moral corruption of telling the poor, the weak, and even one’s competitors in the marketplace to trust in God’s bounty, using it as an excuse for not sharing what we receive from Him.

It is because of this ease with which people are able to find reasonable and rational reasons for not giving charity that the Tur [Ya‘akov ben Asher, 15th century codifier of Jewish law known by the title of his work, Arba‘ah Turim], in his opening statement to the laws of tzedakah uses a repetitive form, writing that “one is obligated to be very, very careful in giving charity.” By these laws, the belief in Divine bounty as a source of all wealth creates in Judaism a concept of stewardship, whereby part of that wealth is given to assist others. The religious concept of bitachon (trust in God) may be applied only to ourselves and may not be projected as the means to solve the economic problems of others. One of the chassidic masters said that he was taught this lesson when he found a ten ruble note. “I put it under a stone and wrote on the stone, ‘Thou shalt not steal!’ When I returned, I found a five ruble note in its place and written on the stone was the verse, ‘Thy brother shall live with thee.’ ”

The Mishnah (Avot 5:12) classifies one whose attitude to wealth is “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” as being a mediocre person. Such a person is prepared to respect the property of another and operate within the framework of the law. However, he is not prepared to assist others, nor does he recognize a social obligation in view of the wealth in his possession. “Some say,” continues the Mishnah, “this is the mark of the people of Sodom.” The people of Sodom have been the archetype of an evil community deserving of destruction ever since biblical times, primarily because of their selfish economic behavior. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Lebush, Hungary, nineteenth century) comments that their sin lay in their refusal to share their wealth with the surrounding nations. It should be noted that while the Aggadah [classical rabbinic legends] is replete with stories of their inhospitality to strangers, the men of Sodom welcomed Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Lot was a wealthy man, and it was only poor strangers who were not welcome in Sodom. The Sodomite view of absolute private property rejects any obligations to assist others, which is contrary to the Jewish concept of limited private-property rights.