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The Jewish Ethicist: Everyday Ethics for Business and Life

The Jewish Ethicist: Everyday Ethics for Business and Life

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by Asher Meir

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Economist and ethicist Meir, a rabbi, started his weekly advice column on the Web in March 2001. Here he has selected, edited, and expanded some of the most popular articles. Among the realms his advice encompasses are fair competition, consumer ethics, human resources, dating, marketing and selling, and schoolyard ethics. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc.,


Economist and ethicist Meir, a rabbi, started his weekly advice column on the Web in March 2001. Here he has selected, edited, and expanded some of the most popular articles. Among the realms his advice encompasses are fair competition, consumer ethics, human resources, dating, marketing and selling, and schoolyard ethics. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

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KTAV Publishing House, Inc.
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The Jewish Ethicist

Everyday Ethics for Business and Life
By Asher Meir

KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Asher Meir and Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-88125-809-1

Chapter One



Ethical Business

Monopoly on Morals?

The Humane Workplace


Biblical Ethics

Gilt Guilt


The practice of Judaism, with its emphasis on fulfilling the practical, everyday commandments, trains us to focus our ethical energies mainly at the level of the individual ethical act. The most important way we can improve and perfect the world is for each of us to focus on improving and perfecting our own character and actions.

Yet Jewish tradition, even as it cultivates the individual ethical act, also envisions ethical ideals for society as a whole. We see this most prominently in the tidings of the Jewish prophets of a perfect future world - tidings which continue to inspire all mankind. The harmony between these two levels of ethical insight is highlighted by the Sabbath morning synagogue service. The centerpiece of this service is the reading of the Torah, which is the source of our detailed individual obligations, but this reading is always followed by a reading from the prophetic works (haftara) which often gives us a breathtaking glimpse of distant yet attainablehuman completeness.

This chapter is devoted to studying the big picture: What is the place of business in the divine plan for the world? How can we understand the gigantic currents of change that buffet us, such as the phenomenon of globalization? What is the precise nature of the guidance that Jewish tradition provides for us?

One theme will accompany us consistently throughout this chapter: When the prophets and sages looked at economic systems, their main concern was not efficiency or productive capacity, however important these may be. These men of the spirit directed their attention to the ability of economic systems to promote harmonious and ethical human relationships.

Ethical Business


The essence of business is trade: one person trades his goods or services for those of somebody else, for mutual benefit. This very concept of "gains from trade" automatically implies a certain dimension of exploitation: each person is exploiting the possessions and talents of the other for his own advantage. Furthermore, the most successful business people are often managers and traders, who do not engage directly in production at all. This dimension of exploitation and inequality raises ethical questions.

Q The biblical ideal seems to be "each man under his vine and under his fig tree," with each person engaging in independent productive activity. In light of this, is it ethical to make a living through business and commerce?

A It is true that the blessings of the Torah are usually directed to the individual farmer or herder, not to the trader. Nonetheless, we also find that our tradition greatly esteems the role of commerce. When Jacob arrived in Shechem, the Torah tells us, he "graced" the city. How did he do this? Our sages explain that he established the foundations of commerce by establishing coinage or a marketplace.

In order to understand this approach, we have to understand the role of commerce in human society. Why is commerce necessary to get goods and services to people in the first place? After all, the Creator could easily have arranged the world so that all our needs would be fulfilled without commerce or even without effort, as in the Garden of Eden.

One aspect of the importance of commerce is that it gives people a motivation for cooperation. When every person or every nation is self-sufficient economically, there is a tendency for them to be isolated or even hostile. However, when people see that there is an opportunity for mutual gain through trade, they learn to accommodate each other and get along.

So we see that even the opportunistic Laban, who repeatedly tries to exploit Jacob, learns to get along with him because he needs his help as a hired hand; and when Jacob made his gesture of friendship through commerce with the residents of Shechem, they responded by offering to let his family "live and trade" there.

Of course there is still a special importance to agriculture. The Bible consistently emphasizes that God's blessing is manifest in abundant crops. Rabbi Yair Bachrach explains agriculture's special status as follows: Even though all of our earnings are only attained through the blessing of God, the miraculous divine contribution is particularly evident in agriculture. This is because it seems as if we are getting something from nothing, since crops grow from rotting seeds buried in the ground.

Ultimately, however, we have to recognize that earnings from business, no less than those from farming, are a divine blessing, and not just the fruits of luck or of our own cleverness. The Mishnah states, "Wealth and poverty do not come from a profession, for everything is according to merit." From a religious point of view, business is neither more nor less ethical than any other line of work.


We may infer from the preceding discussion that a situation where everyone lived in self-sufficient isolation in his own freehold would actually not be ideal. A fascinating insight from Jewish tradition supports this conclusion.

As the question points out, Scripture tells us, "And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon." This sounds idyllic. But the great medieval rabbi Ray Hai Gaon tells us that this very situation caused King Solomon to institute an important legal reform.

Many people are aware that Jewish communities strive to erect an eruv, a symbolic enclosure of the neighborhood. Only when an eruv is present are observant Jews allowed to carry items from house to house on the Sabbath. Otherwise, each house is considered a separate domain, and carrying from one domain to another is forbidden on Shabbat. The literal meaning of the word eruv is "mixture" - all of the different properties are merged together into a single domain. A very ancient tradition records that the requirement for an eruv originated in this very same idyllic time of King Solomon.

Rav Hai Gaon explain this as follows: Until the time of Solomon, the Jewish people were in an almost constant state of conflict. The entire country was like one great armed camp. Only in his time did Israel "dwell safely." And in a military camp, there is no need for an eruv. We can explain that in time of war, there is an instinctive sense of community and interdependence. There is no need for artificial means to join people together. But the situation of "each man under his vine and his fig tree" carries the danger of isolation and separation; precisely then there is a need to stimulate people to go beyond their private domains and interact with others. One such motivator is mutual economic improvement through trade.


This insight into the value of commerce underscores the special importance of business ethics. Jewish tradition is very strict about this aspect of our law, stating that "the punishment for cheating in measures is even greater than the punishment for sexual immorality." if the true purpose of business were to create prosperity, then we could excuse some laxity in business ethics, so long as it did not harm profitability too much. But if the entire purpose of commerce is to create brotherhood and mutual trust, then anything which contradicts this is not only inexcusable in itself, it frustrates the very purpose of commerce.

Business is not only ethical, it is one of the most important ways that God gave us to foster coexistence and understanding among human beings. But this is dependent on business being conducted in an ethical way, in a manner based on cooperation and understanding, not on exploitation.

Monopoly on Morals?


The idea of "Jewish ethics" is a bit of a paradox. The essence of ethical principles is that they strive for universal validity; yet the designation "Jewish ethics" suggests something uniquely Jewish. The harmonization we strive for in the Jewish Ethicist is to find insights from Jewish tradition on ethical principles that can guide all mankind. But how does this source of ethical understanding fit in with other sources, such as secular ethical thinkers or insights from other cultures?

Q The Jewish Ethicist always gives answers from a Jewish perspective. But does the Torah really have a monopoly on morals? After all, all cultures have ethical ideals, including some that are not given prominence in Jewish tradition.

A The most basic answer to your question is that the Torah does not a have a monopoly on morals. All nations have ethical ideals, and valuable moral insights are found in the cultures of every people. Our tradition acknowledges this fact. For example, consider the following passage from the Talmud:

Rabbi Eliezer was asked, How far does the obligation to honor parents extend? He said, Go and see what a certain non-Jew in Ashkelon, Damma ben Natina, did for his father. [He was offered a massive sum for some precious stones], and the key was under his father's pillow, but he refused to disturb him.

And Maimonides, the foremost Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, does not hesitate to cite Aristotle as an authority and example in matters of ethics; he even calls Aristotle "the chief of philosophers."

We obtain a deeper insight into this principle from the prophetic writings. The prophet Isaiah tells the Jewish people that in the future, "Kings will be your tutors." On the one hand, a tutor serves his charge, so this prophecy shows that the honor of the people of Israel will be so great that royalty will serve us. Yet a tutor is someone who provides guidance and instruction; we see that even at the time of the redemption we will still need to learn from the noblest elements of other cultures.

As an example of this prophecy, the Talmud cites the example of the Persian king Yezdegerd, who gave gentle, fatherly advice on dignified deportment to one of the Torah sages who visited him, showing that during the period of our exile we are charged with learning the most elevated elements of the cultures that generously adopt and host our people.

Of course the converse is also true; our sojourn in exile helps to spread the exalted values of our people to other lands and cultures. In the same chapter, the prophet informs us that the Jewish people are to be a "light unto the nations."

It should not be surprising that our tradition sanctions learning moral principles from other cultures. The study of ethics is in large measure a branch of secular wisdom. A person who wants to build a sturdy and attractive house will study the most enlightening works of architecture and construction, without any regard for the nationality or religion of their authors. Likewise, if we want to construct a sturdy and fitting communal life, we are in need of the thoughts and insights of wise individuals of all backgrounds.

However, we must remember that ultimately Torah is not about ethics alone; it is above all about holiness, about drawing near to God. Our sages repeatedly taught that ethical perfection is a necessary prerequisite for spiritual elevation; but it is in no way a substitute. Consider the following well-known midrash:

Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rav Nahman stated, Consideration precedes Torah, as it is written: "[He placed at the east of Eden cherubim and the turning sword] to keep the way to the tree of life." "The way" refers to consideration; the Tree of Life is Torah.

It is true that ethical behavior comes first; that is how we set out on the way. But it is only the way - the goal is the Tree of Life, which is Torah.

Regarding this distinction, the Midrash tells us: "If you hear that there is wisdom among the nations, believe it. If you hear that there is Torah among the nations, do not believe it." Since ethics is a branch of wisdom, we certainly believe and accept that we can find much of this wisdom in other peoples. Indeed, Jewish law prescribes a special benediction to be recited when one sees a gentile scholar learned in secular wisdom; the benediction praises God "who gave of His wisdom to flesh and blood." If we encounter a scholar with profound insight into the wisdom of human relations and integrity, we not only acknowledge this fact but also thank the Creator for making this wisdom accessible to us through such a person. But we recognize that the ultimate, transcendent wisdom is found only in Torah.

The Jewish tradition is our foremost source of ethical guidance, but not our only one. Wise individuals of every nation and culture can provide insights into ethical principles, and we are obliged to learn from them and to acknowledge our debt to their wisdom. Such knowledge helps us to build a foundation of upright behavior that can serve as the springboard to holiness.

But there is still unique importance in learning ethics from the Torah. First of all, the source of the ethical principles learned from the Torah is revelation, not speculation. Therefore we can be confident that these principles are valid and eternal.

Second, it is true that all valid ethical principles serve as a foundation for moving toward holiness. But the principles enunciated in the Torah literature, since they stem from Torah, already incorporate an element of holiness.

The Torah does not have a monopoly on morals, which is a branch of wisdom that studies the way to create a human society that embodies integrity and dignity. These qualities, which can be learned from wise people of all backgrounds, are necessary prerequisites for significant growth in holiness, which is achieved through Torah. However, morals learned from the Torah tradition are sure to be a reliable foundation for spiritual growth, and indeed already bear within them a unique spiritual radiance due to their holy source.

The Humane Workplace


The Torah contains many commandments that limit the abuse of workplace authority; for example, workers must be paid on time and servants treated humanely. But some people think that detailed regulations such as these will never be enough; what is necessary is an overhaul of the entire system of workplace authority.


Excerpted from The Jewish Ethicist by Asher Meir Copyright © 2005 by Asher Meir and Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Jewish Ethicist: Everyday Ethics for Business and Life 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book consists of a series of essays on various ethical topics, most of which (but not all) deal with ethical dilemmas encountered in the real workaday world. What apppeals to me is the writer's rigorous, analytical, and systematic approach to problems, as opposed to expressing vague, politically correct, feel-good sentiments. I warmly recommend the book to individuals who are looking for a thoroughgoing, non-superficial approach to solving moral conundrums.