Parshat Kedoshim Part II: The Challenge of Wealth

Dedicated by Melvin Fastow of Bayside NY in memory of his wife Susan Ruth Fastow on the occasion of her third yahrzeit.

A weekly series by Dr. Meir Tamari about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

The second in a two part series on Parshat Kedoshim.

Every economy needs a stable system for measuring weights and measures otherwise it cannot operate. The cost of every individual ascertaining for every transaction, the truth of the weights, quantities or sizes of goods sold, would be so exorbitant as to make transactions impossible. We know that all societies from the most primitive to our own sophisticated economy have always had such a system. However, what is involved, in addition to the economic imperatives is the moral perspective involved in adhering to a system chosen. In Kedoshim we have the Torah’s injunction not to use false weights and measures (Leviticus19: 35-36), while in Deuteronomy we have the injunction against the possession of such weights and measures, not only their use.

The injunctions concerning both are regarded as wrongdoing in judgment and as an abomination before G-d, a term used also for sexual immorality and idolatry. The Shulchan Arukh considers the punishment for false weights and measures as being greater than that of sexual immorality. This is because weights and measures are a sin also between Man and Man, whereas sexual immorality is a sin only between Man and G-d. Furthermore, this is because the only way one receive atonement for economic crimes is if one returns the theft to its owner. One who cheats in weight and measures, like those involved in mail fraud, stocks and shares scandals or pyramid schemes, defrauds many people, most of them unknown to the perpetrator. Therefore they are unable to return anything and cannot do teshuva and be forgiven. They, in mercy for their spiritual condition are only allowed an inferior level of teshuvah through the giving of charity and the doing of good deeds.

Halakhic rules equated the use of false measures with other forms of theft. However, there are significant differences in the legal treatment of such a theft. While one is only guilty in the case of ordinary theft when one steals a shevah prutah, in the case of false measures even the most insignificant amount is sufficient to make one liable. In this respect, measures and weights are like chametz on Passover, where anything, mashehu, that is chametz is not allowed. Furthermore, in regard to price coercion there is a cutoff point of 1/6th at which the price differential can be claimed back or above that in order to invalidate the sale. In either case, the remedy has to be chosen within the time in which one is able to consult with an expert; in the case of weights and measures, there is no cutoff point and redress can be had irrespective of the time that has elapsed.

In order for a person to be clean in matters of weights and measures, one is required to give slightly more than the amount asked for.

Like all the other areas of Judaism, the implementation of the ideology of just weights and measures was not left to the conscience of the individual, but rather it was the subject of rabbinic and communal legislation. So the codes ruled that the community was obligated to appoint inspectors to see that merchants have just weights and measures, with the power to enforce fines and corporal punishment for any infringement. In varying times, depending on the materials used in measurement, the type of goods sold and the different functions in the marketing chain were laid down within which merchants had to adjust their measures and the scales (Choshen Mishpat).

Of greater importance than the legal framework and the imposition of punishment for false weights is the thought pattern that lies at the root of the Torahs injunctions. It is a thought pattern that actually is a guide to our ethics in business and in our social conduct. One that is particularly significant since the general society has its own legal structure of weights and measures within which we operate.

The Torah in Leviticus (19:36) links its injunctions concerning just weights to the Exodus from Egypt and our Sages queried this linkage; after all they have nothing to do with Pesach. Some saw this linkage as a teaching that the whole purpose of the Exodus was the observance of the laws concerning weights and measures since these lie at the root of the social order that the Torah desires.

Prior to the Exodus, G-d had killed all the firstborn of Egypt. Determining who is really a firstborn depends on knowledge of the most intimate secrets, knowledge that is not always possessed by the two parents. “He who was able to distinguish between the seed of the firstborn and that of others in Egypt, will surely punish those who falsify their weights in secret” (Bava Metziah 61b). The awareness that G-d alone possesses even this most secret knowledge is the greatest restraint against white-collar crime that like weights and measures is always carried out in secret, far from human scrutiny or beyond their knowledge.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, was once riding in a cart, when the driver stopped to cut wheat in the field he passed. He asked the Baal Shem to keep guard and tell him if somebody was watching. No sooner had the drier bent to cut the wheat, than the Baal Shem cried out, “they see, they see.” The driver, bewildered and fearful, hurried back to the cart, and turned to see who was watching. Seeing nobody, he angrily said that there was nobody around to see. The response came swiftly and sharply, “He sees, He sees.”

In Deuteronomy (25:13-16) the injunctions concerning weights and measures are followed by the command to wipe out the memory of Amaleck. Rashi, querying this sequence, saw the enemies of Israel as a punishment for false weights and measures, an indication of the severity of such secret economic crimes.

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Dr. Meir Tamari is the former chief economist of the Office of the Governor at the Bank of Israel, and the founder of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.