|A Proposal for a High
School Course in Torah Ethics
Professor Steven (Shlomo Chaim) Resnicoff, Esq.
Ira (Yitzchak) Kasdan, Esq.
Preliminary Torah Ethics Course Outline
Copyright © 1999 The Aleph Institute Center for Halacha and American Law
and Steven H. Resnicoff
The course will initially employ a lecture framework that will
introduce students to the following concepts:
The course will then introduce students to a
variety of Halachic and secular legal selections and will require students to
apply the concepts raised by such authorities to specific hypothetical fact patterns.
- The Halachic responsibility to resolve disputes among Jews without resort to
secular courts (the issur archaos)
- The structure and practice of batei din in the United States
- Exceptions to the general prohibition against using secular courts
- When the exceptions arise
- Limits as to what one may collect in secular court in reliance on an exception
- The structure of secular law in the United States
- The interrelationship between Jewish law and secular law
- "The law of the kingdom is law" - dina demalchuta dina
- Application of this principal to matters involving civil law
- Application of this principal to matters involving criminal law
- The effect of commercial custom - minhag hasocharim
- The effect of an agreement - tenai shebimamon
The teaching materials will provide teachers with a variety of hypotheticals from which
to choose, based on various factors. Some issues may arise in connection with the
hypothetical sale and purchase of a house, with the relationship between an employer and
an employee, with the filing of questionable insurance claims or tax returns.
The following, partial list of issues arising from the sale of a house may not
represent the most cogent issues. Nevertheless, these examples illustrate the breadth of
Stage #1 - Soliciting Someone to Sell His House
Assume that Reuven has a rich father-in-law who wants to purchase a house for him near
the yeshiva where real estate values are very high. Shimon, who is relatively poor, has
such a house only because he bought it many years ago when the price was low. Shimon is
not thinking of selling his house. May Reuven offer to buy the house from Shimon - or is
there a problem with the prohibition against coveting another persons property (lo
sachmod)? If Shimon initially rejects Reuven's offer, would it be permissible for
Reuven to ask the head of the yeshiva to suggest to Shimon that he accept the offer? Would
it be permissible for Reuven to ask his friends to ask Shimon to sell?
Stage #2 - Negotiating for the Sale of a House
For purposes of this issue, assume that Shimon wanted to sell his house and put it up
for sale before Reuven ever approached Shimon. Negotiations for the sale of the house give
rise to various Halachic and secular law issues, including:
- Suppose Reuven is really willing to pay $250,000 for the house. May he tell Shimon that
"There is no way that I will pay more than $225,000 for the house," or would
such a statement involve fraud (geneivas daas)?
- May Shimon say that he has already recieved an offer to sell the house for $260,000
(even though he has not) and that he would therefore only consider selling it to Reuven if
Reuven offers more than $260,000? Suppose Reuven believes Shimon and, based on this
belief, offers Shimon more than $260,000 and the sale is consummated. If Reuven later
finds out that Shimon had lied to him, may Reuven undo the deal?
- Suppose Reuven tells Shimon that Levis house is just as good as Shimons and
Levis is available for $200,000. May Shimon tell Reuven about defects in Levis
house (assuming, of course, that there are, in fact, such defects) or is Shimon limited to
describing the advantages of his own house?
- In describing the "advantages" of his own house, to what extent, if any, may
Shimon engage in "puffery"?
- Suppose Shimon knows about certain problems with his house (e.g., the basement
floods, the plumbing is problematic, there are termites). May Shimon take any action to
"cover up" such problems? Assuming that Shimon may not actively cover up
problems, must he affirmatively disclose them or may he remain silent about them?
- Suppose Shimon has lied to Reuven about certain defects in Shimons house and that
Yehudah, a friend of Shimons, knows about the lie. If Yehudah cannot convince Shimon
to tell Reuven the truth, should Yehudah tell Reuven because of the obligation not to
stand by while another Jew suffers a financial loss (lo saamod al dam reyechah)?
Would it make any difference if Yehudahs knowledge is based on information given to
him by Shimon "confidentially"? Would it make any difference if Yehudah were
- What if Dan owns the property next to Shimons and Dan wants to buy Shimons
house. Must Shimon sell the house to Dan? Must Shimon give Dan an opportunity to purchase
the house on the same terms that Reuven has offered? Do the answers to these questions
depend on any particular facts?
- Suppose Reuven and Shimon have orally agreed on terms for the sale of Shimons
house, but they have not signed a written contract. Suppose Naftali would also like to buy
a house within two blocks of the Bais Medrash. May Naftali go to Shimon and offer him more
money than Reuven offered or would such conduct violate the rule against interfering with
another persons rights (e.g., ani mehafech bichararah)? Would
the answer be any different if Reuven and Shimon had signed a written contract? Why or why
- Suppose Reuven and Shimon have orally agreed on terms for the sale of Shimons
house, but they have not signed a written contract. May either Reuven or Shimon change his
mind and refuse to go through with the sale? If one of them did change his mind, would
this indicate that he was not trustworthy (mechusrah amana)? Would the one who
backed out receive a "curse" in bais din (a mi sheparah)? Are
there any circumstances that might change the answers to these questions?
Stage #3 - The Contractual Terms
- Suppose Reuven does not really want to live in Shimons house. Instead, he only
wants to purchase the house if he first finds someone who will buy the house from him at a
higher price than he pays Shimon. Of course, he does not explain this to Shimon. Instead,
he asks Shimon to put a clause in the contract allowing Reuven to have the house inspected
within a certain number of days and providing Reuven the right to cancel the contract
should he be dissatisfied with the results of the inspection. Reuven knows from experience
that a house inspection will always reveal some problems and he is relying on this
contractual provision as a way out. Has Reuven acted properly? Why or why not?
A similar question would arise if Reuven asked for the contract to be contingent on his
ability to obtain a mortgage from a bank. In fact, Reuven, who is unemployed, knows that
he does not qualify for a mortgage. Instead, to the extent Reuven may need some cash to
buy the property before reselling it, Reuven is really relying on his rich father-in-law.
Has Reuven acted properly in asking for the mortgage contingency clause?
- What does the contract say about the mezzuzos on the house? May the seller
replace the present mezzuzos with ones that, although still kosher, are of a lesser
Stage #4 - Financing the Purchase
- Does the financing of the purchase involve problems regarding the prohibitions against
the giving or taking of "interest" (ribbis)? Consider, for example:
- If the down payment is being held in an interest bearing account, who gets the benefit
of any ribbis?
- May a borrower pay a "finders fee" to a Jew who arranges a loan for him?
- May someone pay interest to a "Jewish" bank or mortgage company?
- May someone serve as a guarantor in an interest-bearing loan?
- If someone obtains cash by borrowing someone elses credit card, may the borrower
pay directly to the credit card company any interest that accrues on the money borrowed?
- What Halachic or secular rules might a purchaser violate if he includes false
information in a mortgage application?
Stage #5 - The Closing Itself
Assume that the buyer pays part of the purchase price in cash:
- Does secular law require that such a cash transaction be reported? If so, does Halacha
allow (or require) such reporting?
- Suppose that the seller or one of the lawyers knows that the purchaser wants to use cash
in order to "launder" money. Does this affect the parties Halachic
or secular obligations?
- What if Reuven is willing to pay $300,000, but only wants the documents to reflect a
purchase price of $250,000. Reuven agrees to pay the other $50,000 in cash. What Halachic,
legal and practical problems may arise? If the cash turns out to be counterfeit, what
could the seller do?
Other Possible "Cases"
Dispute between former employer and employee The latter had signed a
two-year term agreement with a two year "non-compete" and non-solicitation
provision, but nevertheless left his employer to join another Jewish-owned business that
directly competes with the first. Based on these actions, the employer accuses the former
employee of breaching the contract and of hasagas g'vul. In addition, the employer
claims that the employee hired away a non-Jewish worker and stole company secrets. Without
admitting or denying the allegations against him, the employee claims that he desperately
needed the new job (which doubled his old salary) and that, in any case, he was mistreated
by his former boss who cheated him and his co-workers from certain promised (but never
delivered) bonuses and benefits.
Property dispute between Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors A Jew with a
large and growing family erects an extension to his house that arguably is prohibited
under zoning ordinances, but not necessarily under Halacha. He funds the
construction with a bank loan. In applying for the loan, the person omits possibly
material information requested on the application form. A Jew who davens in the same shul
as the home owner and is his neighbor but not a friend - indeed, he lives on the same
street where the allegedly illegal construction took place and is not happy with the
"monstrous" addition) - finds out about the possible fraud because he is a bank
auditor. The frum auditor must decide whether to aid the community members who want the
city to force the home owner to tear down the addition by revealing the alleged fraud to
bank officials. When confronted by the frum auditor in a private conversation, the home
owner admits that he knew that he possibly was committing fraud. In any case, as things
develop, other bank officials discover the alleged crime and the home owner is prosecuted.
The authorities seek to compel the auditor to testify against his fellow Jew.
Based on this fact pattern, this case can actually have three simultaneous
"proceedings" an administrative proceeding before the Zoning Board; a Beis
Din action; and the criminal investigation and proceeding with all their
attendant legal, ethical issues and problems.
Another case study could start out with "negotiations" involving a business
takeover or similar transaction. The deal can either: (i) close but later go sour, leading
to claims and a lawsuit and/or Beis Din case, or (ii) can break down before it is
completed, leading to litigation in that instance as well. The "negotiations"
will be designed to raise ethical/moral/Halachic issues concerning emes and sheker,