This year, these two sedrahs are read together in what is the last week of
the year, Erev Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim, so our attention should
be focused on teshuvah and atonement, during these Days of Awe. The viduy,
confession, is the centerpiece of this process. "If a person has
transgressed any of the mitzvot, irrespective of whether they are positive
or negative ones, and decides to repent, they are obligated to make a
confession. Such a verbal confession is a positive mitzvah even as it is
written" (BaMidbar, 5: 6-7)," and every man or woman shall confess the
sins they have committed" (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, Chapter 1,
During this period there are two forms of confession:
-Ashamnu- a short one of 24 verses arranged alphabetically that is recited
during the penitential prayers.
-Al Chet- one of 48 verses recited on Yom Kippur.
One of the major themes of both forms of confession is social immorality
and unethical business behavior, and we may consider here, some of those
from Ashamnu, all of whose verses are devoted to these issues.
The confession is recited in unison, because we are all responsible for
one another and because morality is to a large extent determined by the
standards prevalent in a society. In a properly functioning moral
society, the community provides guidelines for ethical behavior and makes
them the norm, not only through legislation, but more importantly, through
peer pressure. Wh
en this is not done, we all share in the immorality.
We have done wrong.
The korban asham was brought as a punishment for the abuse of trust. "And
denies that which was entrusted to his keep, or a loan or that which he
took violently or by oppressing his neighbor."(Vayikrah, 5:21). These
examples given in the Torah are easily applicable to modern business
life. They speak of denying our obligations as debtors, or using trust
money or pension funds for the personal benefit of the trustee or to
improve the financial situation of the corporation. The officers of
Enron, to take a recent example, abused the trust of their employees when
they prevented them from selling their stock, even though management was
busy unloading their investments in the knowledge that the corporation was
in serious difficulty.
We have robbed.
This does not only refer to simple robbery but to also to withholding
wages, unilaterally breaking contracts or using superior economic and
other power to force others to agree to a transaction which is to their
disadvantage. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Gezeilah ve Aveidah, chapter 1,
halakhah4.and chapter 3, halakhah16). Salesmen of goods and services are
often guilty of such tactics just as is aggressive advertising that is
aimed at exploiting ignorance or human weaknesses. We create a pervasive
atmosphere of corruption through petty cheating, and by manipulating
loopholes in the legal system through our superior education or the
professional services available to us.
We have forged lies.
Everyone will agree that outright lies and false advertising have no place
in a viable market. Otherwise the transaction costs of verifying
statements, invoices, advertising and the price and quality of the goods
and services, become prohibitive and the market cannot function. However,
in our confession we are expressing sins of another dimension.
In a Torah perspective concealing defects, not revealing flaws in goods or
services and creating a false impression, are as bad as outright lies.
The former two create a 'mekach taut'- errors in marketing, while the
latter is 'gneivat daat'- "stealing another person's mind". In both cases
they are grounds for canceling the sale. Mekach Taut is usually translated
as a fraudulent sale, however, this is not altogether correct, since it
applies even when there is no intent to defraud and the seller himself was
not aware of the defect. Halakhically, there is no need for a warranty or
guaranty for claims to be lodged, and its absence is considered merely a’
scribe’s error’. There are cases where it is the buyers who are
obligated to disclose the defect since they have greater expertise and
knowledge, as for example the professionals who are buying antiques and
There is no principle of “let the buyer beware”, while the onus for full
disclosure is the seller's. "It is forbidden to cheat people [Maimonides
specifically includes Jews and gentiles] in the marketplace [literally in
buying and selling] and to defraud them [literally, to steal their
minds]. For example, one is required to point out flaws in the article
So it is forbidden to sell the meat of an animal which died as though it
was slaughtered kosher, even to an idolater [who halakhically is not
obliged to eat kosher meat and therefore actually suffered no physical or
financial loss; only the false impression created by the seller]” (Choshen
Mishpat, Section 228, subsection 6).
This ruling applies also to the buyer, who is not allowed to profit from
the ignorance of the seller as to the value of the article being sold.
There is even an ancient Torah source for the modern practice of ' window
dressing' of financial statements. "It is forbidden to dye the beard of a
man [slave for sale] so that he appears younger, or to give bran water to
animals since this causes them to appear fatter than they are by making
their hair glossy nor is it permissible to paint old utensils to hide
their blemishes [there is no objection to packaging or displaying goods to
make them attractive nor arranging floor space and shop windows to present
the goods in the most desired fashion. It is the fraud that is
forbidden] ” (Choshen Mishpat, 228, subsection 9). Financial statements
lend themselves easily to this form of false presentation, since it is
easy to hide defects, to change definitions and to postpone or bring
forward expenses or earnings, so as to create the desired, yet false
financial picture of the corporation. Enron was only the first of the
major corporations that have willfully falsified their financial reports;
guilty of geneivat daat. The accountants and financial advisers who
either assisted them or chose to ignore the fraud are guilty of assisting
“Most people are not manifest thieves in the sense of openly confiscating
their neighbors belongings, yet most of them get the taste of theft in the
course of their business dealings by allowing themselves to gain through
their neighbors loss, saying ‘business is different’. How many
prohibitions are stated in the Torah in regard to theft? Do not steal, do
not rob do not oppress, you shall not deny and a person should not speak
falsely against his neighbor. A person should not deceive. A person is not
allowed to push back their neighbor’s boundary [thereby stealing their
land]. These varied laws of theft relate to most common types of business
actions, in relation to which there are many prohibitions. For it is not
the overt, acknowledged deed of oppression or theft alone, which is
forbidden; but anything that could lead to such a deed and bring it about
is included in the prohibition” (Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 9).
As we are ending our course in The Challenge of Wealth- Jewish Business
Ethics, you should know that my new course dealing with Don Yitzchak
Abarbanel on parshat hashuvah will be available on the same website as
from Shabbat Bereishit.
DON YITZCHAK ABARBANEL,
A TORAH SCHOLAR FOR OUR OPEN SOCIETY.
This Torah scholar, diplomat, financier, mystic and leader of his people,
although living some 5 centuries ago, is particularly pertinent to the
modern open society and global village in which we live, in a way that no
other scholar seems to be. He is probably the last person to combine
within his person 4 major and long existent Jewish traditions;
philosopher, statesman, torah scholarship and cabbalist. His commentary on
the Torah seems particularly suitable to those of us who earn our
livelihoods, engage in business or professions and willy-nilly are
confronted with the challenges of living globally, for the first time
since his period, in free societies.
Faced with the challenges inherent in the cultural and religious free
market of his time 15th century Spain, his knowledge of Torah,
philosophy, both Jewish and that of classical Greece and European
Renaissance, and mystical sources, he presents a commentary suitable to us
living in a similar assimilatory prone, open and spiritually free society.
As a scion of traumatic Jewish expulsion, persecution and suffering, his
ideas of galut, redemption and messianism are extremely relevant to our
post holocaust generation.
Adopting a special Socratic style of detailed questions and answers, he
produces a commentary on the Chumash and the Nach that is familiar and
convenient for us trained as we are, knowingly or unknowingly, in Greek
methods of thought and those of science and technology. Furthermore, he
constantly refers to the classical commentators who preceded him- Rashi,
Rambam, Ibn Ezrah, Ralbag and Ramban. However, like a breathe of
intellectual fresh air, he does not hesitate to question and dismiss their
comments and supply his own.
He was born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1437, into a family descended from
King David that ranked in the forefront of the Jews of the Iberian
Peninsula. They were distinguished by their financial, political and
Jewish communal leadership achievements.
In addition they were known as a family that loved scholarship, and piety,
and had strong moral convictions. All these as well as their commercial
and financial strengths Don Yitzchak inherited. Then in 1483, with the
ascension of the anti Semitic king Joao, he was forced to flee to Spain,
where he re-established himself till the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in
1492. Ultimately he made his way to Italy, where he lived in Naples and
Venice till his death in 1508