Theft in the World of Business

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Commission or Kickback ? The Problem of Bribery

Reuven, the buying agent for Shimon, is offered a 10 percent commission by Levi if he will purchase goods from him. Whether acceptance of this commission should be considered theft or not will depend on the effect that the actions of Reuven have on the business of Shimon. In those cases where Reuven is buying inferior goods or paying above market prices, then it definitely constitutes theft. However, it may well be that Shimon suffers no loss, since the goods and prices are the same as those offered by other suppliers. In this case, Reuven would have to pay half of the commission to Shimon, since one may not have a benefit from someone else's money. After all it is Reuven's position as buying agent for Shimon, with all the financial and commercial power that flows from it, that enables him to receive the commission.

Levi's role in this case should not be overlooked. The commission he is offering is an elegant euphemism for bribery, and is a simple variation of an important moral problem in the international trade of the developed countries with states in South America, Asia, and Africa. The United States of America has passed legislation prohibiting American corporations from giving such bribes in order to make sales or obtain contracts in foreign countries, despite the fact that no such legislation exists in most other Western countries. Naturally, this places the American corporation at a distinct disadvantage, the price for a moral decision. Israel has no such legislation, but a survey by the author of exporters there showed the overwhelming majority to be in favor of enacting it.

Bribery for judges is forbidden in the Bible since "it blinds the eyes of wise." It would seem that the purchasing agent or his equivalent actually has the status of a judge, since he adjudicates between the rival claims of various competing corporations. If this is correct, then it would be halakhically forbidden to offer such commissions. Such moral blindness affects not only the receiver but also the giver.

Who Knows?

The legal principles involved in these and similar cases may compensate the injured party for a loss suffered from the theft, yet one wonders just how effective such principles can be in preventing such secret and hidden actions. It would seem that the spiritual dimension seen by the Rabbis in the laws of weights and measures may provide such protection.

The biblical verse in Leviticus (19:36) containing the injunction "Just weights and measures shall you have" continues, saying, "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt."

This linkage seemed strange to the Rabbis of the Midrash, since the Exodus does not seem to be related to weights and measures, any more than any other mitzvot. They explained, "The God who distinguished between the first seed of the Egyptians [the First Born] and other Egyptian sons who were not killed in the plague [a distinction based on the most intimate and secret knowledge known only to God] shall surely punish he who soaks his weights in salt in order to cheat [in secret]."

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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).