HMS 5765-11 Jewish Values at Work

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

December 6, 2004 – Number 5765-11

Jewish Values at Work

Day after day we read in the news about one company or another in trouble with its investors or its customers for unethical practices. The Phenomena is hardly new. The Talmud records many court cases brought by employees and laborers against practices that they felt were unfair. Many of these cases remind us of what we see today in the workplace. While one can make a general rule that the Sages of the Talmud worked hard to defend the rights of workers, they also took a look at the responsibilities of consumers as well.
The first concern in Jewish Law is for the owner of property. Once a person took possession of property, he or she was fully responsible for it. If someone were to do them a favor and look after it, they had only limited liability if something should happen to it that was not in their control. On the other hand, if one rented that object, then they had full liability if something should happen.
One could not open a store that would be in direct competition with another shopkeeper if it would take away the first storekeeper’s business. One could only go into competition if the first seller had more business than he or she could handle.
There are many cases where the Sages changed Jewish law to prevent price gouging. There was a limit to the markup a storekeeper could charge without having to refund the difference if the buyer challenged the price paid in court.
Owners were responsible for their animals as well. If a ox would gore a person or another ox, if the animal was a first time offender, the owner was let off with a warning to tie the animal securely. If the animal was known to gore, than the owner had full liability for any damages it caused.
If someone were to buy an object and take delivery later, the seller must protect the property of the buyer until it is delivered. Otherwise the seller is liable for damages.
The Rabbis also reminded sellers that good customer service would bring back buyers. They were advised to go beyond the letter of the law and not take every advantage they could from their customers. There is a famous story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who bought a Donkey from an arab vendor. When it was delivered, a valuable gem was found hidden in the bridle. The students of the Rabbi were overjoyed since the donkey was sold with bridle. The Rabbi, however, asked the students if the Arab knew the gem was hidden in the bridle. “Of course not,” said the students. “The gem is far more valuable than the donkey.” “Then return the gem to the Arab,” said the Rabbi, “Who am I to take advantage of the letter of the law.” When the stone was returned the Arab was overjoyed and praised the Rabbi and the Jewish G-d whom the Rabbi served.
On the other hand, the Sages also reminded the customers that they should not ask a shop owner the price of an item on the shelf if he has no intention of buying. The owner has the right to expect one to buy the object if one is inquiring about the price.
Employees must be paid on time. In ancient days, they were paid at the end of every day. Some agricultural workers might be paid at the end of the season. To delay payment could cause severe hardship for the workers and their families. It was expected that workers would have time for lunch, and if they worked in an orchard, they could eat some of the fruit they had harvested and it would not come out of their pay. Hired workers were not financially responsible for unintended damage.
Landowners had a responsibility to feed the poor, The poor could enter their fields to reap the corners and to glean the dropped ears of grain. If a sheaf was forgotten, than the owner could not go back to get it unless it was clear that it was not forgotten but just not yet picked up. The owners could choose which poor people they would let into their fields. And the poor had to be careful not to damage the other fields that were not yet harvested.
From all of this we see a pattern of behavior in the marketplace that mirrored behavior in one’s personal life. Anytime people gather to conduct business, there will be conflicts in the marketplace. In any small town or city, there will be competition. But there is a line between competition and unethical behavior and the Sages tried to teach this through the law as well.

Next week: Torah, Bible and Apocrypha

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