Sermon: Shabbat Ci Tetzei – Were you a decent person in business?

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 4 September 2017

Before July 2007 going into a pub or club in Britain used to mean coming out with your clothes smelling of second hand smoke.   That was in the days before smoking was banned in enclosed public places as it became more and more apparent that passive smoking was not only unpleasant but also meant that you took in sufficient noxious chemicals to increase your risk of lung cancer by over 25%. [Source Cancer Research UK].


Our Torah portion today, Ci Tetzei is the portion which includes the greatest number of Mitzvot, the commandments or duties which make you an active Jew.  There are 74 of them.  More than a tenth of all of those in the Torah.  On the surface, many seem to deal with an ancient society very different to our modern technologically supported way of living – they speak of wandering oxen, millstones held on pledge against a loan, housing very different to ours.


But the Jewish principle is that Torah must always be interpreted to bring its values to our day.  So, for a Jew these mitzvot give us guidance for how to behave today, they are not to be read as an archaic guide to the principles of our spiritual ancestors.   Deuteronomy 22:8 says “When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there.”  This mitzvah does not disappear into irrelevance if you don’t have a flat roof on your house, not a set of stairs to get up there!  Rather it is an easy act of interpretation to go from there to a general responsibility to prevent danger to other people when you can – and from that comes a Jewish duty not to make other people breath smoke from your tobacco consumption.   That indoor smoking ban is anticipated in the Torah!  (Rabbi Melanie Aron, WUPJ Torah from Around the World 01/09/17)


Many of those 74 Mitzvot deal with how we trade with each other, our behaviour in business.  Again, many of them seem archaic, dealing with a society of subsistence farmers, trading amongst family and tribe.   We are commanded to lend without interest to people we are in relationship with, we are commanded to collect debts with consideration for the dignity of the person from whom we are collecting “ When you lend your brother anything, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you lend shall bring out the pledge outside to you.” (Deuteronomy 24:10-11).  We are commanded to pay day labourers immediately their day’s work is finished.  We are commanded to ensure that field labourers can eat while they work – letting them eat some of the produce of the field they are harvesting. (Deuteronomy 23:25).  We are commanded to leave a little of our produce for the destitute and the stranger to gather. (Deuteronomy 24:19)   We are commanded not to bring the gains of illicit earnings into contributions for religious life – “Do not bring your earnings from a harlot into God’s house in payment for a pledge you have made.” (Deuteronomy 23:19).

They may seem archaic but in their very simplicity the principles of how we do business are eminently interpretable. From them comes a Jewish principle that the way a person does business is the essence of who they are and what they have been in this world.  Rabbi Ilai said that a person shows his quality in three ways, b’choso, b’chiso, b’chasoB’choso is “by his cup”, presumably meaning the way that he deals with alcoholic drink, b’chiso is “by his purse”, meaning the way he uses and values money, b’chaso is “by his anger”, meaning his disposition and temperament. (Talmud Eiruvin 65b)

This is of course a play on words but, as Rabbi Richard Hirsch, past President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism wrote, our most significant religious actions might seem from the outside to be just part of day to day behaviour.  He writes “This can be done best not in the comparatively rare moments of prayer or communion with God on important holidays …. but in the daily relations with his fellow men” such as through our behaviour in business. (Richard Hirsch, The Way of the Upright, New York:  UAHC, 1973. P64)


Maimonides in the eleventh Century wrote that a “Talmid Chacham” – a wise student is not known only by their intellect but most importantly by the integrity of their business dealings – “His yes is to be yes and his no, no; he forces himself to be exact in calculations when paying but is willing to be lenient when others are his debtors….he keeps his obligations in commerce, even where the law allows him to retract, so that his word is his bond…he is careful not deprive his neighbour of his livelihood or cause hardship and anguish to others.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 5:13).


One of the six tractates of the Talmud, Nezikin, is mostly dedicated to the way in which we do business – with the sections Bava Kamma being about our obligations to be considerate of each other, Bava Metzia about our obligations in trade and Bava Batra about land and property transactions.  Throughout the rest of the Talmud business behaviour figures in many comments and laws.


The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law from the sixteenth century which is considered authoritative by most Jews is one quarter concerned with business dealings.  The section Choshen Mishpat deals with everything from the law of sale, to the law of lending to property laws and laws of competition and zoning.


Dr Meir Tamari, now in his 90’s, is the seminal figure of today’s Jewish business ethics, seeking to bring the Torah into today in this field.  He was senior economist of the Bank of Israel and lecturer in Economics at the Bar Ilan University.  His books “In the Marketplace” (New York:  Targum/Feldheim, 1991) and “With all your Possessions” (New York:  The Free Press, 1987) have made the whole of Jewish business law accessible for today.  He has shown through these and many other books and his and his successors’ teaching as the UK Jewish Association for Business Ethics and the Jerusalem Center for Business Ethics that it is irrelevant whether we are talking about oxen and flat roofed mud housing or trucks and skyscrapers, whether we are talking about day labourers and harlots or HR policies and Ponzi Investment schemes – everybody throughout history has the opportunity to cheat or be honest, to be untrustworthy or have deep integrity, to take advantage of others or to nurture other’s development.

He writes that in the final analysis there are six principles to Jewish business ethics that derive from the Torah and through our three thousand years of Jewish textual interpretation:

1)  There is a limitation on the time that you should allot to economic activity in your life – you have other obligations, to family and friends, to religious life, to restoring yourself.  Though Tamari doesn’t say it here he means that no one ever said at the end of their life “I wish I had spent more time at the office”.

2)  The production or sale of goods or services that are harmful

to their consumers, either physically or morally, or damaging to the environment is wrong.

3)  You are responsible for damage you cause to others.

4)  Theft or economic dishonesty in any form or guise is forbidden – whether you are a seller or a buyer.  There may be one born every minute but you may not take dishonest advantage of them.

5)  You have to limit your appetite for material goods.  Some of your wealth should always be given to others who are more needy than you, through tzedakah, charity, interest free loans to enable them to make a living and by taxation to finance welfare, education and the physical well-being of the community.

6)  Being in business is a good thing and building wealth is necessary.  The questions is how do you do it and what do you do with it so that your prosperity brings as many people with you as possible.

(Adapted from “With All Your Possessions” pp59-60)

All of this applies whether you are in business yourself, an employee, a shareholder in a company, or just a person going to the shops.  In Judaism we are all equally dignified by the mitzvot and all equally empowered and obliged to make the world liveable for all.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:  “Of any economic system we must ask:  Does it enhance human dignity?  Does it create self-respect?  Does it encourage creativity?  Does it allow everyone to participate in the material blessings of the created world? Does it protect the vulnerable and help those in need to escape the trap of need?  does it ensure that no one lacks the means for a dignified existence?  Do those who succeed share their blessings with those who have less?  Does the economic system strengthen the bonds of human solidarity?  ….. These are the questions we must ask of global capitalism if we are to exercise responsibility” (Dignity of Difference, London: Continuum, 2004, p89)

Never say that the verses of the Torah do not apply today.  As the scholar Rabba said in the third century – many hundreds of years after the Torah was completed:  When a person is led in for judgement [at the end of their life – the first thing they will be asked is] did you deal fairly in business?  (Talmud Shabbat 31a).   Surely, we would all want to give the answer Yes, I tried.