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Confession

By Dr. Meir Tamari

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, halkhah1).

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 art.

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 being sold.

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 sinners.

Postscript.

“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).

DEAR READER,

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.
INTRODUCTION.

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.

BIOGRAPHY.

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


Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari and Torah.org

Rabbi Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.


 






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