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Jewish Journal

Did you transact your business honestly?

The importance of Jewish tradition for business ethics

by Elliot N. Dorff

March 14, 2012 | 5:48 pm

“When a person is led in for judgment [in the next world], God asks: ‘Did you transact your business honestly? Did you fix times for the study of the Torah? Did you fulfill your duty to establish a family?’ ”
—Rava (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

The very first question that God asks each one of us after death, according to this passage in the Talmud, is whether we handled our monetary affairs honestly. The Talmud does not say what you might expect—Did you murder anyone? Injure anyone?—presumably because it assumes that most Jews do not do those things. What we are tempted to do, though, is to cheat in monetary affairs. Thus the way one handles one’s money is a sensitive barometer of the moral mettle of a person and hence the very first question we are asked.

Fundamental Jewish Perspectives on Money

American Jews are confronted by two very different perspectives about money in the American and Jewish traditions. The Protestant ethic at the core of much of America’s attitude toward money values not only work, but the resources it produces, including money. All too often in modern America, money in this approach is taken to an extreme, such that money becomes the measure of a man – and now, increasingly, of a woman, too. We speak of a person’s “net worth,” referring to how much money or other financial resources he or she has, as if that really defines the worth of a person.

Another source of American perspectives on money is the Enlightenment. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson says that it is a “self-evident truth” that all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” John Locke, from whom Jefferson copied that sentence, ended it, however, with “life, liberty and property.” In Locke’s theory, we give up some of our rights in order to gain the benefits of civil society. Among these are our rights to all the monetary resources we have produced, for every government taxes away some portion of those resources. The burden of proof, however, rests with the government to show that it needs that money and that it is using it wisely and fairly. That I get to keep a significant part of what I earn is at the root of capitalism, for that motivates me to work to earn at least as much as I need and maybe much, much more.

In sharp contrast, classical Jewish sources assert that by creating the world, God owns it all. As Moses says to the Israelites, “Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it” (Deuteronomy 10:14). Thus when I own something, I own it only vis-a-vis other human beings. Jewish law definitely does presume private ownership; although communities may own property, individuals legally can own property as well. That ownership gives me the right to use my property in any way I please except as restricted by law. Furthermore, my legal right to my property means that I can sue others in court if they damage my property or try to take it from me by force, and there the rule will be, “The one who wants to take something from his fellow bears the burden of proof [that it is rightfully his]” (Mishnah, Bava Kamma 3:11; Bava Batra 9:6; etc.). All of this, though, applies only to my standing vis-a-vis other people, not vis-a-vis God.

God’s ownership of the world, though, means that I must abide by God’s rules in doing business. Based on quite a number of specific rules governing business in the Torah itself, the rabbis of the Talmud and later times amplified them in spelling out what the rabbis understood to be God’s demands of us.

Unlike other systems of thought, in Judaism the human being is neither inherently sinful (“Original Sin”) nor inherently virtuous. Rather, we are born with an inclination to preserve ourselves and an inclination to serve others. The first of these is evident from the moment of our birth, and it takes 13 years for the altruistic instinct to be in full force (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 16), but from then on people must balance both instincts. The self-serving instinct is called the yetzer hara, “the evil instinct,” because caring only for ourselves usually leads us to do bad things to others. Even so, the rabbis recognized that without that instinct, “a man would not build a house, marry a wife, beget children, or conduct business affairs” (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). Conversely, the rabbis also recognized that the altruistic instinct could be taken to an extreme such that a person neglects oneself and one’s family (B. Ta’anit 24a; B. Ketubbot 50a). The proper path is, therefore, to balance both instincts. In the famous maxim of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” (M. Avot 1:14).

Because God ultimately owns the whole earth, God imposes limits on my ownership. So, for example, according to Deuteronomy 22:8, I must put a parapet on my house’s roof if it is flat and intended for people to use so that they do not fall off. Similarly, the Torah asserts that if I own land that I farm, I must leave the edges of the field and the crops that fall to the ground during harvest to the poor (Leviticus 19:9).

Furthermore, the community has both the moral right and the legal power in Jewish law to impose taxes, to require that individuals contribute to the communal fund and soup kitchen for the poor, and to regulate individuals’ use of their property through such regulations as zoning rules. Ultimately, the communal court has the right to expropriate an individual’s property because “property that the court declares ownerless is ownerless (hefker bet din hefker)” (Tosefta, Shekalim 1:1; Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 89b; Gittin 36b). 

Applying Tradition to Modern Problems

Jewish sources substantiate what most readers of this essay probably assume—namely, that Jewish tradition has much to say about how we use and conceive of money in the first place. As with everything else, however, some contemporary realities require that we apply Jewish concepts and values about money in new ways. For example, our ancestors could never have imagined the global economy with instantaneous transactions by computer, and they certainly did not deal with the new moral issues of honesty and privacy that it raises. Furthermore, they knew nothing about corporations. Indeed, contemporary corporate international issues are vastly more complicated than the ones raised by the agrarian and mercantile contexts, respectively, that the Torah and later the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud assume. Rabbis responding to these issues must therefore identify the relevant values and perspectives of the tradition and then apply them, rather than specific precedents, to the situation at hand. They must practice “depth theology” rather than simply apply a clear and relevant precedent.

Many of the moral issues modern Jews face with money today, however, are identical or at least very similar to the ones Jews have confronted for generations, and so a relatively direct application of the tradition will suffice. For example, the Torah already knows about the temptation to use dishonest weights and measures and prohibits us from giving in to that temptation (Leviticus 19:35-36; Deuteronomy 25:12-16); that precedent could easily be applied to new kinds of fraud. Similarly, the Torah is well aware of the fact that people will need loans, and it demands that we respond to that need in a way that does not make the debtors slaves for life (Exodus 22:24-26; Leviticus 25:25-55; Deuteronomy 24:10-13). Although we no longer press debtors who cannot pay their debts into slavery, we can learn from the values articulated in these passages that the way we handle loans should be realistic and humane so that people do not lose their livelihoods and their self-respect in taking out a loan. The Torah also knows that some people will be too poor to take out a loan, and it demands that we give food and money to the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10; 25:35-38; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 15:7-11). The Torah also warns of the haughtiness, and indeed, the idolatry, involved in presuming that I deserve full credit for everything I have, that “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17). Instead, we should have the humility to recognize the role others have played in affording us what we have, especially God: “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth” (ibid., v. 18). In these general ways, and in some very specific ways that are spelled out by rabbinic rulings (teshuvot) from the Middle Ages to our own times, much of what Jewish tradition has to say about moral issues in business rings true and offers us wise counsel still today.


Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, is co-editor, with Louis Newman, of “Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Money” and “Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Power,” which served as the basis for this year’s Gittleson Seminar on Jewish business ethics at AJU.

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