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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When Mr. Beer, on Sunday, went through these messages, he informed the War Department that he would have accepted the first offer and that he had failed to answer it because it was the Sabbath. He was, therefore, prepared to let the government have all his merchandise at the rate originally suggested to him. The War Ministry was so impressed by this example of living Judaism that they made the firm its main supplier and thus established its global significance. (Leo Jung in Contemporary Jewish Ethics, ed. Marc Kellner, New York 1978

Remaining Above Suspicion

The second ethical principle is taken from the Numbers 32:22: “Vihyitem neki'im meihashem umiyisrael”—“And you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel.” This principal dictates that those in a position of trust must be above suspicion. Thus, in Talmudic times, charity collectors were not permitted to exchange copper coins which they had collected, for their own silver coins, because this might give the impression of impropriety. Therefore, they were only allowed to exchange the coins with outsiders (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 8b). Similarly, when surplus food accumulated in the soup kitchen, the overseers could not buy the food themselves but had to sell it to others (ibid.).

This principle of “above suspicion” finds easy application in the modern business setting. A manager or a treasurer of a company can frequently secure reimbursement of business expenses without submitting receipts. The principle of “v’heyitem neki'im,” however, requires him to submit the appropriate documentation in order to avoid suspicion of embezzlement (Aaron Levine, Economics and Jewish Law, Hoboken 1987, 16-17).

Giving God a Good Name, and the Opposite

The last two principles I shall mention are especially relevant to Jews living in a non-Jewish society. They apply not only to business ethics but to all of our relations with our non-Jewish neighbors. They are called Kiddush Hashem, or the sanctification of God’s name, and Hillul Hashem or the desecration of God’s name. They stem from a verse inLeviticus (22:32): “You shall not desecrate My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel—I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” This verse means that any good or holy act done by a Jew sanctifies God’s name in the eyes of his Jewish and gentile neighbors, while any bad or profane act done by a Jew desecrates God’s name in the eyes of the public. When a Jew cheats on his taxes, the tax official does not say, “Max Goldberg is a cheat,” but rather “Jews are thieves, what an unethical religion.” When a Jewish retailer overcharges, the customer does not say “Joe Schwartz is a thief,” but rather, “Jews are thieves, what an unjust God.”

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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.