Using Unjust Measures

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

“You shall do no unjustness in judgment : You shall not respect the poor, nor honor the mighty: you shall judge your friend with honesty.”(Vayikra 19:15)

“You shall do no unjustness in judgment, in weights or in measures.” (Vayikra 19:36)

The publication this week of the Israel State Comptroller’s report of misdemeanors in the public sector coincides with the reading of a powerful ethical message in Parshat Kedoshim. The Torah delineates many of the crimes which are committed by man towards his neighbor, while also stressing the responsibility of those who hold power not to abuse their position by granting unjust benefits or by abusing weaker sectors of the populace. Unfortunately every year the comptroller’s report portrays a litany of embezzlement, profiteering and cronyism which clearly contradict the Torah’s social message and which nobody seems capable of dealing with. Politicians are hardly embarrassed by the findings, as they like even adverse publicity, while the public usually adopts a laissez-faire attitude towards these reports, and the police will rarely pursue any of the issues raised.

One of the topics addressed by the report is the issue of precise measurements in gas stations. In a sample check of meters in gas stations, 456 meters had inbuilt errors which were affecting consumers. Similarly the air pressure gauges were found to be faulty in 90% of these stations. The laconic advice of the comptroller was that there must be an increase in supervision and not just a reaction to individual complaints.

Judaism takes a very severe approach to any cheating regarding weights and measures. In Parshat Kedoshim the Torah equates a person using a scale for a business transaction with one who is judging his friend. The same expression is used in both cases, which may seem puzzling to us. A judge is making a decision based on a personal legal assessment, while a salesman is simply employing a technical instrument to his advantage. At most this can be described as theft, so why does the Torah see him as a judge?

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch addresses this point by first determining the source of the Hebrew word “avel”, translated as unjustness. He connects it to “elyon, meaning “high”, and demonstrates how the word “avel” connotes an abuse of one’s lofty position to act unjustly. If a judge allows himself to be swayed by the status of the individuals involved he is abusing his own august position, since his power was only given to him in order to judge with impartiality.

The Torah views a merchant measuring items as holding the same power as a judge. His expertise gives him the buyer’s trust and faith, which in turn puts him in a position of power. He must now decide the legal ownership of an item in the same way that a judge decides the fate of a defendant. If he uses false weights he is stealing. Even if he makes such weights or keeps them in his house he has already transgressed the biblical prohibition, because that in itself constitutes abuse of his “highness”-his position of authority regarding the true measurement of items. The idea being conveyed here is that there is judicial justice and personal justice. Any individual with the ability to be honest or dishonest is at once a “judge” and is held accountable correspondingly, even if he simply maintains in his possession the false weights which will enable him to be dishonest. A judge who is influenced by the identity of the defendant is also being dishonest, even if his final decision is in accordance with the law. Rashi cites the five terrifying results of this miscarriage of justice: Pollution of the land, Desecration of G-d’s name, Departure of His Holy Presence, Israel will fall by their enemies swords ,and Exile.(The last two are seemingly a corollary of the first three)

Chazal also emphasize that the punishment for false weights and measures is more severe than illicit sexual relationships. Rabbi Hirsch explains that whereas the latter relate to personal morality, the issue of false measures is the basis of society as a whole. Every measure that distorts the truth is a false judgment, since the emblem of Jewish society is its scrupulous honesty. Moreover, this is the only reason for the Exodus, as the Torah concludes “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt.” If we cannot create a society built on honesty we have not achieved the goal of the Exodus.

For a Jew, honesty is not just the best policy, it is a matter of existential importance, defining our society as G-d’s chosen nation.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).