Assisting the Perpetrator of an Evil Deed

One violation of the biblical injunction not to "place a stumbling block in the path of the blind" is aiding and abetting an illegal or unethical transaction.

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Abetting Evil in Various Forms

One of the common commercial examples of this is the trade in stolen goods. Here the buyer, by creating a market, is providing the rationale for the thief’s actions, which are forbidden ones. The Mishnah, and subsequent codes, rules that “one may not buy sheep or wool from the shepherds [in those days guardians of other people’s flocks, meaning that these goods probably did not belong to them] ... nor may one buy saplings or fruit from the watchmen of the orchards ... nor may one buy anything which the seller asks to be hidden.” (Mishnah, Bava Kama 10:9)

By the same logic, one is not permitted by Jewish law to sell articles that are forbidden, so one may not sell nonkosher meat to a Jew who is not allowed to eat it, nor may one sell clothes that are immodest since Jews are required to dress modestly. In all these cases, the sale causes the person to do something forbidden to him, and therefore the seller is putting a spiritual stumbling block before him. The concept extends beyond ritual and encompasses spiritual issues basic to Judaism’s concept of the world and mankind. One of the seven Noachide laws that Judaism considers to be binding on all men forbids idolatry. In terms of the market this means that one may not sell to a non-Jew items that can be used or that are commonly used for idolatry. The non-Jew would thereby be encouraged or enabled to do that which the Torah forbade him, and the Jew, an accessory to a forbidden act, is guilty of [violating the precept of ] lifnei ivver. It would seem logical therefore that items that were spiritually bad for one, like pornography, would also fall into the forbidden category of lifnei ivver, since both Jew and non-Jew are commanded to observe laws of sexual morality.

The Case of Arms Sales

In present-day Israel, this injunction of lifnei ivver has very serious macroeconomic implications. Israel is a major trader in arms and that trade is an important component of its balance of payments. Maimonides codifies as law the mishnah in [Tractate] Avodah Zarah (1:7) that “it is forbidden to sell to gentiles weapons of war nor may [one] sharpen swords and spears; [in modern times repair] weapons; nor ... chains [to be put on the necks or feet of captives,] nor lions nor bears nor anything that may be used to harm the public.” The rationale is that the primary use of all these arms is not self-defense but rather murder, suppression, or war. In the Israeli case, the arms trade has to be examined in the light of [the principle of] lifnei ivver to determine whether it is permissible within a Jewish framework. The arms trade not only affects the government as a supplier, but also includes a large number of people who are engaged as agents, as middle men, or even as experts needed to train the buyers in the correct use of the weapons systems. Furthermore, many people employed in the high-tech industries are also involved, since the military establishment, as in all countries, is a major purchaser of their products.

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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).