Jewish Theology of Business Ethics

In the world of work and finance, success and failure can be measured. Money spent and money earned, money gained and money lost are all carefully accounted for. The progress of one’s career can be tracked by income, rank, or the symbols of power and prestige.

Though Jewish culture has rarely denigrated the world of work, nor has the accumulation of wealth often been viewed with suspicion among Jews, rabbinic sources evaluate one’s business affairs first of all through an ethical “filter,” as in this classic midrash, one among many:

jewish business“‘If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, and you do what is upright in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments, and you keep all God’s laws…’ (Exodus 15:26): What does ‘doing what is upright’ mean? It means being engaged in the give-and-take of business. The verse implies that when people act in business with integrity and their fellow human beings are pleased with them, it is accounted to them as if they had fulfilled the whole entire Torah.” [Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Va-Yassa’, 1.] The midrash reads these connected phrases as a sentence: “doing what is upright” constitutes “keeping all of God’s laws.”

Intrinsic value–though not as high as the value of learning Torah or performing mitzvot–is ascribed to work itself in many classical Jewish sources. Work is valued not as the converse of an inherently evil idleness but rather with the positive goal of self-reliance. People feel shame not so much about being idle as about being indigent, and it is from the latter that we ask to be spared in these passages from the traditional Grace after Meals: “May we never find ourselves in need of gifts or loans from flesh and blood [but may we rely only on Your helping hand]…” and “May the Merciful One provides us with an honorable livelihood.” From this outlook Jewish law derives a parental obligation to provide children with an education in some skill from which they may earn a living.

The business world is competitive. The Jewish legal tradition distinguishes between fair and unfair competition and attempts to delineate the border between them. Rabbinic sources record a number of debates about the legitimacy of going into competition with an existing enterprise, and eventually draw a line between ruinous competitive practices, which are outlawed because of the degree of economic harm they cause, and those practices which fall short of driving one’s competitors out of business.

Protection for the rights of employees is grounded in biblical law, beginning with a prohibition against delaying payment to a day laborer (Leviticus 19:13). Rabbinic civil law underscored that point, claiming that one who does delay payment violates not one but four biblical injunctions, and added the provision that wages must be paid in money and not in goods. Workers’ rights are also protected in rabbinic law by granting them an exemption to the general rule that financial claims must be based on more than just a statement under oath. An employee denied wages could establish such a claim merely by making a statement in court.

The individual encounters the world of business as a consumer as well. Biblical and later Jewish law provide for a number of forms of consumer protection. As early as the laws of the Torah, fraudulent pricing and inaccurate weights and measures are outlawed. The biblical prophets railed against unfair market practices as much as they did against such other moral failings as idolatry and licentiousness, and the rabbis of the Talmudic era did the same. Going beyond mere sermonizing, Jewish law specifically recognizes a consumer’s right to abrogate a sale made under deliberately falsified conditions or at an exorbitantly high price.

Traditional sources sometimes adopt positions that are troubling to some modern Jews, such as setting a higher standard for how one treats one’s fellow Jews that that applying to dealings with non-Jews, or certain restrictions on workers’ rights to organize. As in other areas of life, though, the Jewish spiritual and legal tradition attempts to bring to the economic sphere a down-to-earth sense of how the realm of the sacred may be encountered, and personal piety made manifest, in one’s everyday affairs, including in the world of business.

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Kiddushin 2

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Kiddushin 14

Acquisition by money.