The Impact of Jewish Values
on Marketing and Business
Hershey H. Friedman
The Impact of Jewish Values
on Marketing and Business Practices
by Hershey H. Friedman
Professor of Business and Marketing
Department of Economics
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
[This paper appeared in the Journal of Macromarketing, Vol. 21, June 2001, 74-80. ©2001]
Judaism, which relies on the Torah for its written law, has had a great impact on marketing and business. The Torah is replete with precepts dealing with business, and the Talmud, the source of Jewish oral law, elaborates and expands Torah law. The process is ongoing and rabbinical authorities today build on the decisions of their predecessors to apply Jewish law to modern problems. Some of the issues examined in this paper include: honesty in the marketplace, fair pricing, employer-employee relations, and environmental issues. Jewish law is not only concerned with practical legal advice but in encouraging individuals to go beyond the requirements of the law and practice the "way of the pious." Judaism does not have a negative attitude towards business and wealth -- indeed, most of the Talmudic sages had occupations and some were quite wealthy -- but riches must be acquired honestly and used to help the poor, the needy, and the stranger.
Jewish culture, values, and ideas have permeated many aspects of modern life including the modern marketplace. This impact of Judaism on marketing and business is manifested not only in such areas as business ethics, but also in the organization's perceived social responsibility, and in a positive attitude towards business and wealth (when obtained and used in a proper manner). Numerous articles and books have been written describing applications of Jewish law from antiquity to the modern era and their continued relevance to the business problems of contemporary society (see, e.g., Elon 1975; Friedman 2000; Jung and Levine 1987; Levine 1980, 1987; Levine and Pava 1999; Tamari 1987, 1991; Wagschal 1991; Warhaftig 1987). To understand this impact, one must first examine Jewish law, tradition, and culture, especially those principles relevant to the marketplace.
GOING TO THE SOURCES
The Hebrew Bible, particularly the Pentateuch (i.e., the Torah), contains the written law and, to the believer, is the word of God. The precepts in the Torah are the foundations of Jewish law and are cited by rabbinical authorities as a kind of constitution to this very day. According to Jewish tradition, the Torah contains 613 precepts, many of which deal with business practices. The Torah is revered by other religions; the Talmud and the Midrash, however, are distinctly Jewish. Thus, to understand the impact of Judaism on marketing and business one must examine the Talmud and Midrash, as well as the Torah.
The Talmud, which is the compilation of Jewish oral law, expounds on the Hebrew Bible and consists of the Mishna and Gemara. The Mishna, originally an ancient oral tradition, was compiled and edited in written form about 1800 years ago by Rabbi Judah the Nasi (President of the Sanhedrin). The Gemara, which was completed about 1500 years ago, consists mainly of commentaries on the Mishna. There were two academies, in Israel and Babylon, independently studying the Mishna. Thus, there are two versions of the Talmud: the Jerusalem Talmud, a product of the academies in Israel, and the Babylonian Talmud, a product of the academies in Babylon. The Babylonian Talmud is considerably larger than that of the Jerusalem Talmud, and it is more authoritative.
The Talmud is primarily concerned with halacha (Jewish law) but also provides a detailed record of the beliefs of the Jewish people, their philosophy, traditions, culture, and folklore, i.e., the aggadah (homiletics). The Midrash, a separate scripture which records the views of the Talmudic sages, is mainly devoted to the exposition of Biblical verses but is also rich in philosophy, folklore, and legends. It should be noted that, other than the few individuals who headed academies, the overwhelming majority of the scholars referred to in the Talmud had secular occupations, such as beer brewer, farmer, farm worker, peddler, physician, wood chopper, merchant, blacksmith, gravedigger. Indeed, some were known by their occupations, for example, Rabbi Yochanan the Shoemaker (haSandlar). Even in later times, many of the great Jewish Biblical and Talmudic commentators had ordinary occupations, e.g.: Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitchak (1040 -- 1105), known as Rashi, was a vintner in France; Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089 -- 1164) was a poet and astronomer from Spain; Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1134 -- 1204), known as Maimonides, was a physician and philosopher in Egypt; and Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470 -- 1550) was a physician in Italy.
Maimonides wrote Mishneh Torah, in which he arranged and codified the laws without the Talmudic debate and homiletics. Later, Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488 -- 1575), relying on the works of Maimonides and other scholars, wrote the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of law for observant Jewry. The Torah, Talmud, Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch, and thousands of responsa (legal decisions handed down by Jewish authorities) are major sources for the rules and regulations governing Jewish law today. Even in the secular arena, Rakover (1992) demonstrates that hundreds of decisions handed down by secular courts in Israel today refer to Jewish law. For instance, in one case, Maimonides’ ruling that "It is prohibited to deceive people in transactions or to mislead them" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Selling 18:1) was quoted to demonstrate the obligations of sellers (Rakover 1992, 755). Friedman (1980; 1984; 2000) shows how many current business laws and practices and numerous concerns of business ethicists today have their antecedents in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.
LAW VERSUS ETHICS: 'THE WAY OF THE PIOUS'
Friedman (1980) notes that the Talmud often resorts to ethical principles in order to improve upon the law. Following the strict letter of the law is not sufficient. In fact, the Talmud (T. Bava Metzia 30b) claims that Jerusalem was destroyed because judgments were based strictly on the law and did not go beyond the strict line of justice. This principle of Jewish law, that demands that one be ethical and even go beyond the legal requirement, is derived from the verse (Deuteronomy 6:18): "You shall do that which is fair and good in the sight of the Lord." The Talmud (T. Bava Metzia 108a) uses this verse to establish the right of pre-emption, i.e., when one sells a field the adjoining neighbors are given the right of first refusal. In addition, individuals who go beyond the requirements of the law will return found objects even if the object was lost in a place where it is clear that the owner gave up any hope of recovery (e.g., if it fell into the sea), and there is thus no legal obligation to return it (T. Bava Metzia 24b).
Another indication that one must do more than simply obey the letter of the law is that "one may be (legally) compelled not to act in the manner of Sodom." In some situations where one party benefits and the other party loses absolutely nothing, the courts can compel an individual to do the right thing (e.g., T. Bava Bathra 12b). Spiteful selfishness of this type is considered a behavior characteristic of Sodom and is not tolerated by Jewish law.
Friedman (1985) demonstrates that the Talmudic sages believed that there is an ethics hierarchy and that individuals should strive to reach the summit. He notes that the highest level of ethics described in the Talmud is "the way of the pious." Businesspeople leading their lives according to this principle go beyond the letter of the law and are willing to lose money rather than take advantage of another person’s misfortunes. Gifter (2000) uses the following case discussed in the Talmud (T. Bava Metzia 83a) to prove that the purpose of the Torah and Talmud is not solely to provide precise answers to legal questions but to develop the morals and ethics of individuals.
Some porters negligently broke a barrel of wine belonging to Rabbah bar Bar-Chana who then confiscated the porters’ property as restitution. Rav, the judge, advised Rabbah to return the property belonging to the porters. Rabbah asked Rav whether this was indeed the law and was quoted the following verse from Proverbs (2:20): "In order that you may walk in the way of the good …" The porters then complained to Rav that they were poor, had worked all day without earning anything, and were in need. Rav told Rabbah to pay them. Rabbah again asked whether this was the law. Rav responded with the conclusion of the verse from Proverbs: "… and keep the paths of the righteous."
Because the Talmud is concerned with improving the ethics of the individual, cases are discussed in which the courts cannot legally prosecute the defendant. This is not surprising given that, in Jewish law, the legal content of the law is totally conjoined with ethics, religion, and morality (Silberg 1973, 83). It is interesting to note that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-14; Deuteronomy 5: 6-18) mixes laws that are the foundations of every legal system (e.g., those dealing with murder, theft, and bearing false witness) with laws that are religious (e.g., against idolatry and observing the Sabbath), and with the Tenth Commandment dealing with "coveting" and "desiring." Legislation against desiring is not part of any legal system and relates more to ethics and morality than to practical jurisprudence. These very different types of laws are combined to demonstrate that crimes against people are also crimes against God and that individuals have an obligation to go beyond the letter of the law and elevate themselves spiritually and ethically. Indeed one wonders whether advertising whose sole purpose is to arouse envy and desire on the part of those that do not possess a certain product is inconsistent with the spirit of the Tenth Commandment.
Friedman (1985) describes cases in which the Talmud rules that the offender is "liable under the laws of Heaven," is described as "wicked," as having "behaved with deceit," "acted in the manner of Sodom," "lacking in honesty," and engaged in a behavior "that is not pleasing to the spirit of the sages." Whether or not a defendant can or cannot be prosecuted for an action may be less important than knowing about whether it is the "right" thing to do. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194 -- 1270), Nachmanides, a major commentator on the Torah (and also a physician), notes that one can follow the letter of the law and still be considered a "vile person within the permissible realm of the Torah" (Nachmanides, Leviticus 19:2).
There are gradations of unethical behavior and the objective is to motivate individuals to move up the ethics hierarchy. Not everyone is capable of reaching the level of Rabbi Safra who is described in the Talmud (T. Maakoth 24a) as an individual who abided by the verse (Psalms 15:2) "who speaks truth in the heart." One day, while Rabbi Safra was praying, a man offered to buy some merchandise from him. He made an offer, but Rabbi Safra did not want to respond in the middle of a prayer. The prospective buyer assumed that Rabbi Safra was holding out for more and kept increasing the bid. After Rabbi Safra concluded his prayer, he informed the buyer that he would sell the merchandise at the first price because he had "agreed in his heart" to this price. Legally, one is not required to do as Rabbi Safra; this is the "way of the pious." On the other hand, if two parties have concluded negotiations leading to a sale and are in the process of closing the deal, and a third party jumps in and makes the purchase, the interloper cannot be prosecuted legally but is described by the Talmud (T. Kiddushin 59a) as a "wicked person."
The Talmud (T. Maakoth 24a) enumerates 11 ethical principles (based on Psalm 15) that underlie the 613 precepts of the Torah. These include such virtues as "speaks the truth from his heart," like Rabbi Safra; "deals righteously," like Abba Chilkiyahu, who would not even greet people while working as a day laborer since he did not want to waste time -- even a few moments -- that was not his; and "who has done his fellow human no evil," referring to one who does not infringe on his fellow craftsman’s business. Opening a store next door to a store selling the same merchandise is something a pious person does not do (Wagschal 1991, 25).
HONESTY IN THE MARKETPLACE
The prohibition against stealing is the eighth commandment of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17) and is interpreted by several of the classic Jewish commentaries to include every kind of dishonesty and deception (e.g., Sforno and ibn Ezra). One ancient commentary (Targum Yonathan) translates this commandment to include being a partner or friend of unscrupulous individuals. It is also stated in Leviticus (19:11-13): "Do not steal, do not deny falsely, and do not lie to one another. Do not swear falsely by My name…Do not cheat your fellow and you shall not rob." Any type of deceptive act or practice, including deceptive advertisements and deceptive packaging, would also be a violation of the Biblical principle (Exodus 23:7), "Distance yourself from a false matter." Moreover, the Torah’s injunction against "placing a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14) is interpreted by the Talmud and Midrash to include proffering bad advice to unsuspecting people or causing others to sin (Sifra Leviticus 35; T. Bava Metzia 75b). Thus, Jewish law would consider deceptive advertising and misleading labeling as placing a stumbling block before the blind and a violation of Torah law. Even the advertising agency that created the deceptive advertisement would be guilty of transgressing this law.
Adulteration of products was a problem even in ancient times as can be seen from Isaiah’s criticism (1:22) of the Israelites: "Your silver has become dross, your wine diluted with water." According to most commentaries, this is not a metaphor but refers to actual deceptive practices in ancient Judah and Jerusalem that angered the Lord.
Merchants were prohibited from falsifying weights and measures by the Torah or even owning a dishonest weight (Leviticus 19:35-36; Deuteronomy 25:13-15). The prophet Amos (8:5) reproached the Jews for "making the ephah (a dry measure) smaller and the shekel larger and falsifying the scales of deceit." After all, "Deceitful scales are an abomination of the Lord" (Proverbs 11:1). In fact, any deception or dishonest business practice is "an abomination unto the Lord, your God" (Deuteronomy 25:16). To ensure honest weights and measures, the Talmud (T. Bava Bathra 88a) required merchants to wipe their weights once a week and clean their scales after every weighing. Market commissioners were appointed to ensure that businesses used honest weights and measures (T. Bava Bathra 89a). Vendors were prohibited from rapidly pouring liquids from great heights (T. Bava Bathra 89b), which was done by retailers to generate foam thereby ensuring that the customer would end up with less product.
Included in the Torah law against theft and deception is the requirement that vendors must be honest in selling. Hiding faults from the buyer is not permitted and such a sale is null and void. The Talmud (T. Bava Metzia 59b-60a) prohibits such deceptions as: mixing your own produce with that of other farmers when the agreement was to provide produce from your field; painting animals or utensils in order to fool prospective buyers into thinking they are younger or newer; deceiving potential customers by placing the better quality merchandise on top of the bin (and the lower quality merchandise on the bottom) in order to make it appear that the merchandise is of uniformly high quality throughout; selling wine that has become adulterated with water in your store without informing the customers. The laws dealing with transactions under mistaken assumptions are relevant even in marriage, i.e., the discovery of a bodily defect in a spouse can nullify the marriage (T. Kethubos 11b, 57b).
Clearly, firms must be aggressive in ensuring that all their advertisements and communications are honest, straightforward, and unlikely to deceive the public.
The Torah states (Leviticus 25:14): "If you sell something to your neighbor or buy something from your neighbor’s hand, you shall not wrong one another." The Talmud interprets this verse to refer to overcharges and undercharges. The Talmud (T. Bava Metzia 50b) ruled that if the overcharge is more than one-sixth -- i.e., the retailer sells an item for a price that is one-sixth higher than what is generally accepted as a fair price -- the sale is null and void. Similarly, if an individual is unaware of the true value of an item and wishes to sell it, one must not take advantage of the seller’s ignorance and underpay.
The law against overcharging was extended by the Talmud to include excessive markups on necessities (T. Bava Bathra 90a). Profits from the sale of staples such as wheat, oil, or wine was not to exceed one-sixth.
Price stability was of great concern to the Talmud, and the Talmudic sages considered causing prices to rise by hoarding or other means a violation of Torah law similar to usury or tampering with weights and measures (T. Bava Bathra 90b). Leaders such as Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin, threatened to revise laws concerning sacrifices when he heard that the price of doves used for certain sacrifices had increased to a golden dinar (T. Krithoth 8a). He was successful and the price dropped to one-quarter of a silver dinar.
Shmuel was another Talmudic sage that used his legislative powers to keep the prices of myrtles, used during the holiday of Tabernacles, and of pots, purchased before the holiday of Passover, from rising prior to the holidays (T. Sukkah 34b; T. Pesachim 30a). Shmuel and his father were known to purchase and subsequently sell produce in such a way as to keep the market price stable and low throughout the year (T. Bava Bathra 90b).
Firms have an obligation to engage in fair pricing and not overcharge or hoard products in order to make excessive profits, especially for necessities and drugs.
The Appearance of Propriety is Important Too
The Torah states (Numbers 32:22): "and you shall be innocent before God and Israel." The Talmud uses this verse to derive the principle that one must behave in a manner that does not give rise to suspicions on the part of others. The Torah (Exodus 38:21-31) provides a detailed list of the amounts of gold, silver, and copper used in the construction of the Tabernacle. This was done to demonstrate the importance of keeping clear records and behaving in a way that does not cause the public to suspect one’s veracity. The Torah states (Exodus 38:21): "These are the accounts of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Testimony, as they were calculated according to the commandment of Moses…" Moses wanted to make it evident that he and the builders of the Tabernacle did not divert any of the precious metals for their own personal use and he therefore used others to audit the records. The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 51:1) comments: "though Moses was the sole treasurer, yet he called others to audit the accounts with him."
The Talmud (T. Pesachim 13a) states that the overseers in charge of the soup kitchen were not allowed to purchase surplus food when there were no poor people to whom to distribute it. Surpluses were only allowed to be sold to others so as not to arouse suspicion that the charity overseers were profiting from public funds. For the same reason, children in the family of Garmu, that made the showbread for the Temple, were never seen with fine bread; brides from the family of Abtimas, the Temple’s incense manufacturers, never wore perfume (T. Yuma 38a). Those who entered the Temple chamber to collect the money (for the sacrifices) wore clothing with no pockets or other receptacles so that people should not suspect them of stealing money (T. Shekalim 3:2).
Organizations have the same obligation as individuals to act in a manner that does not arouse suspicion and to use outside auditors that are truly objective.
In an agrarian society, the laborers who worked the fields were usually slaves. Regarding the treatment of slaves, the Bible states: "You shall not rule over him through rigorous labor" (Leviticus 25:43). The Midrash (Sifra, Leviticus 86; Midrash Hagadol, Leviticus 25:39) explains this to mean that one is not permitted to make a servant engage in degrading work (e.g., removing his master’s shoes), perform work that has no purpose (i.e., "busy" work), or carry out a task without a defined limit (e.g., "hoe until I return" when the servant does not know when the master will return). Employers are required to pay employees on time. The Torah states (Leviticus 19:13): "You shall not oppress your fellow and you shall not rob; the wages of a worker shall not remain with you overnight until morning."
The concept of fringe benefits is alluded to in the Torah. Field workers are given the right to eat of the produce while they work. The Torah states (Deuteronomy 23:25-26): "When you come [as a worker] into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as is your desire, to your fill, but you may not put any into a receptacle. When you come into your neighbor’s standing corn, you may pluck ears with your hand, but you should not lift a sickle on your neighbor’s standing corn." When their servitude ended, the master was required to give the slave a severance gift know as hanakah. The Torah states (Deuteronomy 15:13-14): "Do not send him away empty-handed. You shall give him a severance gift from your flocks, from your threshing floor, and from your wine cellar ..."
Wagschal (1991, 37) states that employees must be treated with respect and describes various obligations of employers. He concludes: "Is an employee worse than a slave?"
An organization should try to achieve its goals (e.g., profit) but must also care for others. Hillel's simple rule summarizes this philosophy of business ethics as well as anyone can (T. Avot 1:14): "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I only care for myself, what am I?"
The Torah makes it quite clear that the landowner has a responsibility to help the indigent. Landowners were obligated to help the poor by leaving the corners of the field for them; during the harvesting, individual stalks that unintentionally fell from the sickle also became the property of the "stranger, orphan, and widow" (Leviticus 19:9). Similarly, vines and olive trees were not to be picked clean: gleanings of the vine and olive tree were left for the destitute (Deuteronomy 24: 20-21). A sheaf of grain that was inadvertently left in the field during the harvest had to be left behind for the indigent (Deuteronomy 24:19). The landowner was obligated to provide a tithe for the priests and the Levites (Numbers 18:21-32) and a special tithe for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). There is also an obligation to "open one’s hand" for the impecunious and lend them money (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
The Torah is very concerned with the welfare of the stranger, an individual that often can be easily taken advantage of. Indeed, the stranger is often mentioned together with the destitute, widows, and orphans. The Talmud (T. Bava Metzia 59b) notes that the precept of not mistreating a stranger is alluded to 36 times in the Torah. For instance, the Scripture states: "You shall strengthen him, whether he is a stranger or a native, so that he can live with you" (Leviticus 25:35). Abusing, taunting, wronging, or oppressing the stranger is forbidden (Exodus 22:20; Exodus 23:9); in fact, the Bible obligates one to love the stranger (Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19). Jerusalem was destroyed for wronging the poor, the needy, and the stranger (Ezekiel 22:29), and Sodom was annihilated for not using its wealth to help the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49). The Torah (Numbers 15:16) insists that: "One law and one ordinance shall be both for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you." Individuals, organizations, and government must ensure that all ethnic and religious groups are treated equitably; special efforts should be made to help the poor and the handicapped get jobs -- the highest form of charity (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7).
Deuteronomy (22:8) states "when you build a new house you must place a guardrail around your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house." The Talmud extends this law to apply to any dangerous situation, for example, keeping a defective ladder (T. Kethuboth 41b). Certainly, selling a broken ladder would be no better. One may infer from this that any product with the potential for harming the user is prohibited by Talmud and, by extension, the Torah. In addition, employers must be extremely careful to make certain that the workplace environment is safe and not deleterious to employees’ health.
A Responsibility for the Environment
Wasteful consumption is proscribed by the Torah. Soldiers are not permitted to cut down fruit trees even when besieging an enemy’s city (Deuteronomy 20:19). The Talmud (T. Shabbos 129a; T. Bava Kama 91b) extends the prohibition of not destroying fruit trees to any type of wasteful destruction; thus, wanton destruction of any kind is a violation of Torah law. This is known as the principle of bal tashchit (literally meaning "do not destroy"), a prohibition against unnecessary destruction or waste. Schwartz (1997) shows how more recent rabbinical authorities have applied the principle of bal tashchit.
Some questions discussed in the Talmud include how far to locate a tannery (which emits bad odors) from a city (T. Bava Bathra 25a). Noise pollution resulting from an individual opening up a store in a courtyard shared by several families is also discussed in the Talmud (T. Bava Bathra 20b). Turkel (1991) applies many of the Talmudic laws and responsa dealing with relations between neighbors to modern questions dealing with pollution.
The Torah requires that the land be given a complete rest in the seventh year, known as Shemitah (Leviticus 25: 1-7). One purpose of the Sabbatical year may have been to protect the land from depletion. During the Jubilee (50th) year, the land was also rested and reverted back to former owners.
The obligation to care for the environment and minimize pollution and waste is one that falls on individuals as well as companies. The Talmud (T. Bava Kama 30a) notes that one who wishes to be pious must be extremely scrupulous in matters that may cause harm to others, e.g., in the disposal of glass and thorns.
ATTITUDE TOWARDS BUSINESS AND WEALTH
The Jewish attitude towards business is quite positive. In fact, wealth, peace, and/or long life are rewards from God for obeying God’s laws (Leviticus 26: 3-13; Deuteronomy 11: 13-16; Deuteronomy 25:15; Proverbs 22:4). The Bible makes it clear that one who helps the poor will be blessed by God (Deuteronomy 15:10; Isaiah 1:17-19; Proverbs 19:17); those that mistreat the stranger, widow, or orphan will be punished by God (Exodus 22:20-23; Isaiah 1: 23-25). There is nothing wrong with being wealthy as long as the rich do not forget that wealth comes from God and that there is an obligation to help the needy. The danger of wealth and its true purpose is explicitly stated in the Bible (Deuteronomy 8: 11-18): One should not believe that "my power and the might of my hand has made me all this wealth"; rather, one should remember that God gives wealth to individuals in order that they may do His will.
It is clear that Judaism sees nothing wrong with wealth as long as it is obtained honestly and used to help the poor. The Talmud also reinforces this idea: In a wordplay on the verse (Deuteronomy 14: 22): "You shall surely tithe," the Talmud (T. Taanis 9a) advises that one should tithe in order to become rich (the Hebrew word that means to tithe is very similar to the word that means to become rich). The verse (Proverbs 11:24), "There is one who scatters and yet is given more" is interpreted by many of the commentators (e.g., Rashi and ibn Ezra) as referring to one who spends his money on the needy. The question of what a person should do to become rich is discussed in the Talmud; one answer is to engage in much business and deal honestly (T. Niddah 70b). Wealth is seen as "comely to the righteous and comely to the world" (T. Avot 6:8), and affluent people who used their possessions to help others were respected by the Talmudic sages (T. Eruvin 86a).
Similarly, the Talmud has a favorable attitude towards working. The ideal is to combine the study of Torah with an occupation. Some statements about work include: "Whoever does not teach his son a trade, it is as though he taught him to commit robbery" (T. Kiddushin 29a); "All Torah that is not combined with work will eventually cease and lead to sin" (T. Avot 2:2); "A person should love work and not hate it; for just as the Torah was given with a covenant, so too was work given with a covenant" (T. Avot D’Rabbi Noson 11:1); "Even God did not let His presence rest upon Israel until they had performed some work" (T. Avot D’Rabbi Noson 11:1); "Skin a carcass in the street and receive wages and do not say I am an important person and this type of work is beneath my dignity (T. Pesachim 113a)." As noted above, the Talmudists practiced what they preached and also had occupations.
The Talmud (T. Pesachim 113a) records Rav’s business advice to his son Aibu, which included the idea to "sell your wares while the sand is still on your feet" (i.e., do not procrastinate, and sell as soon as possible). The idea of diversification -- i.e., dividing one’s assets into thirds: 1/3 in land, 1/3 in business, and 1/3 kept liquid -- is also mentioned in the Talmud (T. Bava Metzia 42a). Advice is provided as to the ideal occupation, which, according to Rabbi Chisda, is needle work (T. Berachos 63a). Another sage believed that investing in business was better than being a farmer (T. Yevamos 63a). Rabbi Papa claimed that he became wealthy by being a beer brewer and recommended this occupation since it allowed one to become affluent and to be charitable (T. Pesachim 113a). Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion was that raising small cattle would make one wealthy (T. Chullin 84b).
Judaism sees nothing wrong with business and making a profit as long as the firm realizes that it has other responsibilities as well. Jeremiah (9:23) stressed that God demands that people practice "lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness." The same can be asked of any organization.
The Psalmist (Psalms 15) describes some of the attributes of a virtuous individual. We cannot help but notice that these same attributes are just as important for an organization: "One who walks in total integrity, deals righteously, and speaks the truth from his heart. One who has no slander on his tongue, who has done his fellow human no evil nor cast disgrace upon his close one… Whoever does these things shall never falter." Achieving the highest level of ethical behavior in the marketplace and practicing the social responsibility that must accompany success in business are the hallmarks of the 'way of the pious.'
Indeed, business ethics occupies such an important place in Jewish law, culture, and tradition that the Talmud (T. Shabbos 31a) has as the very first question an individual is asked in the next world at the final judgment: "Were you honest in your business dealings?"
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About the Author
Hershey H. Friedman received his doctorate in marketing and statistics from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His areas of research include business ethics, literary humor, measurement problems in surveys, computer simulation, and leadership. He has published more than 125 articles in scholarly journals and proceedings.