Responsa of the Week: If I park at a parking meter before the time is expired, do I have to reimburse the previous occupant of the spot?
A weekly series by Dr. Meir Tamari about responsa regarding business ethics issues.
In order to demonstrate the work of the halakhic system and its moral considerations regarding a variety of issues in business and economics, I will present a number of responsa drawn from the literature. These represent questions addressed either by laymen or by rabbis or communities to rabbinical authorities and their answers. They cover a period of close to 2000 years and reflect Jewish life in all the countries of the Diaspora. Even though the answers may vary and conflict with each other so that one cannot draw behavioral conclusions from them, they demonstrate Jewish thinking and values in this field.
Regarding many types of ethical dilemmas, the absence of a communal structure capable of bringing public disapproval and legal coercion to bear on transgressors, results in halakhah becoming mere moralising and verbal piety. These are primarily the areas of crimes against the public purse such as tax evasion, smuggling, disregarding regulations regarding stock markets, currency trading and public policy. The concept of the public purse as an impersonal and vague being tends to blur the distinction of permitted and forbidden. It is easy to develop a casual treatment of the public purse, irrespective whether it is non-Jewish as in the Galut or Jewish in Israel.
The following responsum from a rabbi in present day New York shows a conclusion that he is powerless to enforce, while we will bring communal enactments from the past that translated his moral objection into coerced behaviour.
QUESTION: From Ephraim … “Reuven parked his car in a parking spot with a meter, placed his money in the meter for an hour parking time. Finishing his business in some 20 minutes, he was leaving the spot when Shimon pulled over, offered to pay him for the remaining time. Later, Shimon refused to pay. Does Reuven have a claim?”
[Although the amount is trivial and would seem not to be worth the bother, we know that within a closed community such trivia can assume negative interpersonal relations. For our purposes, the principles involved in the rabbinic decision are important irrespective of the amount involved].
“Payment for the spot does not constitute a purchase of the space but only entitles the person to park on the city streets for as long as they need. If another uses the rest of the time, the free parking is simply his luck and Reuven does not have any claim for payment.
In essence, however, Shimon should pay for new time on the meter, irrespective of Reuven’s unused time. After all, the street belongs to the city and the city allows people to park on its streets in exchange for payment. Therefore, Shimon’s free use is ‘gezel rabim’ -robbery from the public. [It should be noted, that such crimes are more severely regarded by halakhah than the same crime when perpetrated against an individual. Over and above any financial punishment that may be involved, all crimes against property or persons constitute spiritual crimes as sins against G-d who forbade them. So repentance, for them requires one to first repair the damage done, return the article stolen or compensate the injured party, then the remorse expressed by the perpetrator will earn G-d’s forgiveness.
However, in the case of financial crimes against the community or society, the large number of individual who are sinned against often makes it impossible to compensate them, therefore the perpetrator will precluded from doing teshuvah. [This makes their punishment even more severe than other crimes for instance sexual immorality for which teshuvah can be done]. The halakhah gives a chance for ‘second class’ teshuvah, through the doing of good deeds and giving charity (Choshen Mishpat, section 231, subsection 19; see also Panim Meirot there).
It requires serious study for me to understand how Torah observant Jews often allow themselves to park their cars in places either that one is not allowed to park or without paying in places that require payment – ‘gezel rabim'” (Rabbi Menashe Klein, Mishneh Halakhot, 226).
We may contrast this with the proactive behaviour of Jewish communities in the past.
“We have agreed that anyone who buys any goods from one who is a known thief or who lends a thief money [thereby encouraging him to steal and in effect condoning theft] shall be punished in the manner described above [Ostracism, that is he is not eligible for public office or honour, not to be counted for a minyan, nobody is permitted to deal with him, it is not permitted to slaughter ritually or examine the kashrut of food for him. Such social punishment by ones peers is far more effective than fines or jail, especially in Judaism with its closely knit social fabric]. Any one who borrows money or wares from Gentiles with the intention of failing to pay for them shall also be ostracized, and no Jew shall buy anything from him or have any commerce with him” ( Council of Jews in Frankfurt, Germany, 1603).
“In the year 1266 the Jews of Canterbury [England]… have come to the conclusion and have bound themselves by oath that no liar, improper person, slanderer may settle in our town [This is accepted practice throughout the Jewish world in contrast to the economic consideration of limiting the competition of outsiders [Herem Hayishuv] that was accepted only in Ashkenaz]” (J. M. Rigg ed., Select Pleas, Starrs, and other Records from the Exchequer of the Jews).
“To the leaders and officers of the communities of Askenaz, their rabbis and batei din regarding the complaint of the leaders of the community of Poznan against Reb Avraham ben Rabbi Joseph Hanover:
Reb Avraham was formerly a member of the community of Poznan and one of its taxpayers. However, when the economic fortunes of Poznan declined he left the community and went to settle in Askenaz [thus avoiding his tax obligations and narrowing the communal tax base]. Now with the grace of G-d the economy has improved and he returned secretly but continues to leave periodically, in order to escape his communal obligations. [This is a common practice to-day with tax havens or expatriates].
Therefore, our request to you, in all your communities, is that you treat him and his family according to the ban [herem] that we have pronounced against them. This is accordance with the halakhic ruling that a person excommunicated by one community is automatically excommunicated from another. [Today people similarly ostracised, will simply transfer to another synagogue that will do nothing to support the public disapproval of their actions]. In this way you will save the renowned community of Poznan [from exploitation since the removal of a major taxpayer meant that the rest of the community has now to shoulder a greater burden].
You are asked to use all forms of bans and pressures against this man who has broken the communal yoke, even recourse to the Gentile authorities. [We have further evidence of a Jewish community in Spain using Pedro the 2nd’s troops to collect the communal taxes] All this shall be done to him until he repents and returns to participate in the tax burden of Poznan” (Vaad Arba Aratsot, 1661).
Throughout history Jewish communities have built similar communal sanctions that have been able to translate Judaism’s moral and ethical principles from pious words into daily practical life. It would most pleasant and harmonious if we could leave everything to Mankind’s natural goodness or moral convictions. However we know that while people may desire to be moral and educated to be ethical, the brutal facts are that the desire for money and economic assets is so powerful and pervasive, respecting neither sex, age nor status, that all too often, all else vanishes before it. Difficult as we may find it to accept today, such coercion in all fields of life, is perhaps the most distinctive characteristics of Judaism; it is this that makes our morality different. Present day Orthodoxy’s failure to continue to uphold such communal coercion, makes Jewish ethical business behaviour dependent on the sensitivity, personal preferences and the cultural values of the surrounding secular and non -Jewish society, of the Jewish individuals; in effect it denudes that behaviour of much of its specifically Jewishness.
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.