21-5770 Mitzvah N-83

Torat Emet
21-5770 Mitzvah N-83
05/02/10

Negative Mitzvah 83 – This is a negative commandment: Do no wrong with any weight or measure

Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “You shall do no wrong in mishpat, in size, in weight or in m’surah” (Lev. 19:35). and the Sages of blessed memory interpreted (Sifra on this verse) “mishpat” means the system of standards “in size, in weight” – that nothing should be lacking from the [standard] size and weight as the people of the country have agreed upon it; and so likewise not to mislead one’s fellow-human being in the measurement of land. “or in m’surah” – the Torah was particular even about a small quantity like a m’surah, which is a thirty-sixth part of a log.
If someone transgresses this, he disobeys a positive commandment (Just balances … and a just hin shall you have… Lev. 19:36) and he violates this prohibition. Even if he gives a heathen a short measure or weight, he violates this, and is duty bound to return [the amount lacking]. It is forbidden to mislead a heathen in an accounting: This is included in the scope of the verse, “For all … that do wrong are an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deut. 25:16)
The court has a duty to appoint officials to make the rounds among the stores and shops to correct the scales, weights, and measures, and to establish market prices. If someone’s measures, weights, or scales are not accurate, they are to take them away from him and are to penalize him with a fine. If someone charges above the going prices, they are to compel him to sell at the market prices. The punishment [by Heaven] over weights and measures is more severe than the punishment for immorality; he [the guilty person] is as one who denies the exodus from Egypt.
This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.

This prohibition, together with the positive Mitzvah stated above, forms the core of all business ethics in Judaism. It is just wrong to cheat someone in business. The saying that somehow business is something different from morality and fair play (after all “business is business”) clearly does not apply in Jewish Law. Judaism believes in capitalism, but it does not leave it unregulated. In this sense, our Mitzvah might as well be taken out of the current news. The unfair and unregulated dealings on Wall Street that led to the financial crisis that we are enduring, has its roots in those who would seek an unfair advantage over other investors. Our Mitzvah insists that all business dealings be fair for both the buyer and the seller. There are no exceptions to these rules.

We must also note that these weights and measures, were not, in the time of the Hafetz Hayim, “standardized”. There were different measures in different places. This is why one has to go by the standards of weight used in the location where the business is being conducted. These things may be determined by local custom but that does not give us the right to “adjust” them to suit our idea of what is fair. Whatever the local custom might be, pounds, kilograms, stones etc. we use what is the standard for the local jurisdiction. [For the record: a “log” is about 506 cubic centimeters of solid, dry volume]. Note also that we are very particular when it comes to the smallest measure. Here it is so easy to cheat, since the amounts are so small that who can tell if something is missing? We learn that in the small measures, we must all the more so be careful that we measure correctly.

There is a Midrash about the “sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah. When a person came to town to sell corn in the market place all the people of the city would come and take away one single grain of corn until at last the entire stall was empty. If the seller complained, how could he prosecute everyone since each citizen only took one grain? We have an obligation to pay for what we want and need, and we must always be prepared to purchase it at the going market rate.

The “market rate” is another standard that has to be regulated as well. While the price of goods was not “fixed” in ancient days, there was no one price that a seller had to charge; the seller was still forbidden to charge a price that was too far out of line from the average price in the market. It was expected that a seller would charge a “markup” in the price to cover his expenses and to provide a profit for the seller and his investors. The rule however, is that there is a limit as to how much of a markup one can take. Price gouging, where a higher price is charged depending on how bad the seller needs the item and how difficult it might be to procure the item, is prohibited. One must not profit excessively at the expense of a buyer who does not know the market rate, or just because local conditions might be driving the prices up. The Sages set up limits as to how much profit a seller might be able to claim. Any attempt to defraud a buyer because he is uneducated or desperate, or because one is using false weights and measures, requires that the seller return to the buyer the amount paid that was overpaid.

Contrary to popular belief, these laws also apply to transactions between Jews and non-Jews. There are some so-called pious Jews who think that it is forbidden to cheat a Jew but it is permitted to cheat a non-Jew. The Hafetz Hayim takes great pains to show that this is not true. We have the same obligations to just weights and measures for both Jews and non-Jews. If we wish to bring blessing to God’s name, we treat non-Jews fairly in business. There is a Midrash about Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who purchased a donkey with a halter and saddle from an Arab merchant. His students handed over his money and brought the donkey back to the Rabbi with joyful news. When they took off the halter, they found a precious stone hidden there. According to the law, the sale was final and the Rabbi was entitled to keep the gem. The Rabbi asked, “Did the Arab know he was selling the stone with the donkey?” Clearly the price was for a donkey, not for a precious stone. The Rabbi insisted his students return the gem to the Arab. The Arab, when he got the gem back was overjoyed. He said, “Blessed be Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, Blessed be the God of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach” The Rabbi held himself to a higher standard and brought to himself and to God a blessing from the Arab.

To insure that all are measuring uses the same standards, the Rabbinic Courts are required to appoint honest agents to check the scales and weights used by venders in the market place, fining and punishing anyone caught with illegal weights or charging illegal prices. These laws of business are more important than the laws of morality. Moral laws are between just a handful of human beings. Business laws can affect an entire community. We need to be very careful about how we read Jewish Law in these matters and not disregard them because they are complicated, unfamiliar and, in our opinion, not needed. Our reputation and God’s reputation depend upon us only holding the highest standards in business. When we have honest weights and measures, we sleep better at night knowing that all of our actions, personal and business, are being conducted with justice, honesty and holiness.

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