Jewish Business Ethics in Practice

A concern for ethical business practices is among the highest priorities of Jewish legal literature. Maimonides (12th century Spain/North Africa), the great Jewish legalist and philosopher, begins his exposition of the laws of courts and civil administration with an explanation of the verse in Deuteronomy (16:18), “You shall appoint magistrates and officials….” He details those civil officials’ responsibilities: “They stand before the judges; they make their rounds to the markets, squares, and shops, fixing prices, regulating weights, and correcting abuses.” The primary task of government, one may surmise, is to enforce regulations that protect customers from being taken advantage of in daily commerce. In a community with corrupt marketplaces, the foundations of justice are weak.

Biblical law requires the establishment of accurate weights and measures. The Jewish exposition of that law calls for periodic self-inspection and the appointment of an independent inspector as well. False or deceptive packaging and labeling is similarly forbidden. One who engages in them violates the broad metaphorical interpretation in Jewish sources of the biblical prohibition against “placing a stumbling-block before a blind person” by playing to consumers’ weaknesses–as well as, of course, the prohibition against lying.

Other sorts of deceptive practices are outlawed as well, so that, for example, the sale of an item at an excessively high or low price relative to its fair market price is considered ona’ah (literally, “oppression”) and under many circumstances the sale could be nullified by the injured party.  Establishing what constitutes a “fair price” is not simple, but the principle is established that neither buyer nor seller must simply “beware,” with no recourse after the transaction is completed.

An extension of the rules of ona’ah reveals the acute ethical sensitivity of Jewish business regulations. The Torah verses outlawing ona’ah are interpreted as referring not only to monetary deception, but to verbal deception as well. It is thus forbidden to make the deliberate impression on a salesperson that one is interested in purchasing an item, when in fact all one wants to do is gather information with no intent to purchase. The seller may have incurred no measurable financial loss, but his or her time went to waste and the anticipation of gain was a cruel illusion. This alone is sufficient reason to forbid that practice.

business ethicsRelations between employees and employers, too, are regulated by Jewish law. The Talmud recognizes the legitimacy of regulations promulgated by “the residents of the town” governing wages and working conditions. The definition of that body is later stretched to include guilds of tradesmen or craftsmen who were allowed to adopt binding regulations. The rights and interests of workers as well as management are to be taken into account by someone to whom a labor dispute is brought for arbitration or adjudication.

Jewish civil law is cognizant of laws and regulations in the wider non-Jewish societies among which all Jews lived for centuries. The authority of the government is recognized in such statues as that which requires that Jewish subjects (in our day, citizens) pay the taxes levied upon them fairly and honestly. “The law of the land,” according to talmudic regulation, “is the law.”

More broadly than the dictates of law, Jewish ethical literature prescribes the application of general ethical principles in one’s business affairs as in every other aspect of one’s life. One is expected to take precautions not only to avoid taking unfair advantage of those with whom one does business, but even to guard against creating the impression of impropriety. For the sake of one’s own good name and for the reputation of the Jewish people–and, ultimately, the God whom Jews claim to serve–one must be remain above suspicion and be perceived as fair and honest, even at the cost of some legitimate gain.

Jewish ethics encourages the individual to go beyond the letter of the law in determining one’s obligations to others in the economic realm, as in others. No one is expected to agree to being taken advantage of, but one is to take even greater care not to gain from any advantage one has over others. In this way, one brings to one’s own life and one’s community a measure of the holiness with which Jewish spiritual practice seeks to imbue even the most mundane affairs.

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