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. Halachically (according to Jewish law), 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.
Maimonides codifies lifnei ivver as follows:
Everyone who causes the blind to stumble in anything [in which he is not knowledgeable] and knowingly tenders him advice that is to his detriment, or those who strengthen the hands of evildoers who are [figuratively] blind and who because of their lusts do not see the true way [of the Torah and the Divine Commandments] transgresses a negative commandment, even as it is written: ‘You shall not put a stumbling block in the path of the blind.’ (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Manslaughter 12:14)
Broadly speaking, therefore, lifnei ivver in the marketplace may be considered in two different forms: assisting a person to perform actions that are detrimental to himself — mesaya li-dvar aveirah; and the giving of bad advice, as distinct from incorrect advice. In both cases, the “blind person” is considered to be the one who is blind or willfully blinds himself to the consequences of what he is doing. Most of the rabbinic responsa and legal codes refer to the first form of lifnei ivver.
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 non-kosher 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 Noahide 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.
As long as the armaments are meant for self-defense, there is no halakhic problem, since a man is obligated to take steps to protect his own life. The armaments industry is an important part of that obligation both at the macro- and the microlevels. In Israel, the creation of a military industrial complex is an acceptable and essential part of that self-defense in view of the constant state of war imposed by her Arab neighbors and the repeated armament embargoes that have been placed upon her in the past. Part of the export trade is essential to this independent armament industry, because it lowers the per unit cost of each item and therefore makes the self-defense more easily realizable.
The problem however arises when the trade in armaments becomes a business just like any other. Then despite its highly profitable nature, it becomes morally questionable. This moral problem is heightened even more by the fact that the regimes buying the weapons are not always those of Western Europe or the United States. Often they are regimes that are either immoral or that violate the basic rights of people. As often as not the weapons are used against their own citizens or in aggression. The aspect of lifnei ivver in the armaments and allied industries is obviously not limited to Israel, except that the independent Jewish state would seem to provide greater scope for implementing this Jewish moral injunction.
Reprinted with permission from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Jason Aronson).
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.