May 18, 2000
Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)
A rabbi in a small community in pre-Holocaust Europe experienced rabbinic burn-out. No matter what he did, no one seemed to appreciate it. Finally he decided to resign and enter business, hoping that this would give him some satisfaction. Prior to announcing his resignation, the rabbi went to consult the saintlyHafetz Haim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, in Radin, Lithuania. The Hafetz Haim listened attentively to the rabbi's frustrations and his plan to change careers. When the rabbi finally finished speaking, the Hafetz Haim went over to his book shelf and removed three volumes of the Code of Jewish Law, the Yoreh Deah, and asked his guest to hold them. These volumes contained in-depth discussion of numerous rituals including the complicated laws of kashrut, the dietary laws.After the rabbi held the volumes for a few moments, the Hafetz Haim exchanged them for the much thicker and heavier three volumes of the code Hoshen Mishpat, devoted to business ethics. Turning to his guest, the Hafetz Haim asked, "How tell me which are heavier, the Yoreh Deah volumes that a rabbi constantly usesor three volumes of the Hoshen Mishpat that every businessman should know?" With this question, the Hafetz Haim encouraged the rabbi to return to his community, pointing out that being an honest businessman is even more demanding than the rabbinate.
A number of years ago, a letter to the editor appeared in The Jewish Journal admonishing rabbis for not addressing issues of business ethics. The writer argued that rabbis limit sermons to lofty ideals of ritual neglect but rarelyaddress ethical abuses. Whether that accusation is justified or not, it influenced me to refocus my efforts and note the numerous laws that the Torahdevotes to business ethics. Perhaps the most telling comment about the Jewishattitude to honest business practice is found in this week's Torah portion. In the midst of listing the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years, laws that pertain to human rights and human dignity, the Torah instructs, "You shall not wrong one another, and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God." (25:17).
The rabbis in the Talmud wondered why the Torah here repeats its warning to theJewish people that they must not wrong one another when this admonition is statedin numerous other verses. The rabbis concluded that this specific verse forbids a person from "offering advice which is not appropriate but is in accordance with theplan and for the benefit of the advisor." In other words, it is forbidden to takeadvantage of another person for one's own gain. In attempting to appreciate the parameters of this statement, the Code of Jewish Law (Hoshen Mishpat 228:4) states that a person must even be careful not to ask a store merchant what an item costs if he has no intention of buying the item from him. This is misleading, warns Jewish law, and is in violation of the Torah's concern that we not wrong one another. Only if the merchant is forewarned, or itis the standard practice of the store to allow such shopping, may one act in such a fashion.
As the Hafetz Haim so wisely understood, business ethics is just as weighty, just as important, if not more so, than the ritual mitzvot we are taught to observe. The Talmudic sages likewise were certainly astute in observing thatour verse ends with the words, "and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God." As they noted, this ending teaches us, "Greater is the violation of wronging another with your words... for here it says, and you shall fear your God."
Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.