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The Challenge of Wealth - Class 4

Parshas Balak

By Dr. Meir Tamari

"One who possesses the following three characteristics is of the disciples of Avraham, our Father; 3 contradictory characteristics mark the disciples of Bilaam, the evil one. Those disciples of Avraham our Father possess a good eye, a humble spirit and an undemanding soul. In contrast, the disciples of Bilaam, the evil one, possess the evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul" (Pirkei Avot, chapter 5, Mishna 19).

Ayin Tova

The good eye is expressed by the joy at another's success, which enables us to waive our legal rights for the benefit of others. In the market place this means foregoing some market share to our competitors, allowing leeway to our debtors when these are in financial difficulties and in providing employee relationships beyond the contractual obligations. These may be considered to be beyond the letter of the law and therefore optional, subject to personal concepts of kindness and morality.

However, we find such behavior mandated by halakha.

The seller is required not only to deal with honest weights and measures, but also to add a measure to the goods being weighed (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, section 231, subsection 14).

There is a consideration to act charitably and ethically when one party has a benefit and the other suffers no loss. This is codified as halakhah in 'the law of the neighbor', dina debar metzra. According to this, a neighbor has to be offered the right of first refusal when considering the sale of real estate. Even though this has to be at market price since the seller is not required to lose, nevertheless, it is contrary to our selfishness that would tend to withhold from our neighbor a free benefit (Arukh HaShulchan, Choshen Mishpat, Section 175, subsection1). It is this selfishness for example, that lies behind the refusal of shareholders in family-owned corporations to sell the shares to each other in view of the advantage that may accrue to the buyers; often this is the reason for taking such corporations public. Failure to offer the right of first refusal, can lead to cancellation of the sale by the neighbor.

There is also a concept of, "walking in righteous ways". The Talmud describes the case of workers who broke wine casks in transportation. When the owner snatched their clothes in compensation, he was ordered by the Bet Din to return them, in accordance with this dictum. Later on, the workers wanted payment for their labor and the bet din, on the basis of the same dictum enforced such payment (Talmud Bavli, 83a). There are opinions that such behavior is obligatory only on people of the same religious status as the owner mentioned in our text. This opinion seems to be both incorrect and, in our days, irrelevant. Incorrect since the Talmud Yerusalmi does not mention the owner's name at all when discussing this case; irrelevant in our days in view of the wide spread acceptance of the most stringent opinions in regard to kosher food and ritual. Such acceptance confers a religious status that we need to apply also to our business practices.

A Humble Spirit.

Humility is not only a desirable religious and spiritual quality but also an important component in the Torah scheme of doing business. It is a Jewish yardstick for all commercial negotiations, for dealing with competitors, suppliers and debtors, and in labor relations. Without humility, it is easy to ignore, override or exploit the dependency of the other parties. " The commerce of the Talmid Chakham [the Jewish role model] ......he forces himself to be exact in calculations when he is paying, but is willing to be lenient when others are his debtors. .....He should keep his obligations even where the law allows him to retract,... but if others have obligations to him he should deal mercifully, forgiving and extending credit. One should be careful not to deprive another of their livelihood [even where this is legal] or cause hardship and anguish to others"(Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot, chapter 5, halakhah13).

It is the lack of humility and our arrogance that lead us to abrogate contracts or verbal agreements. Obviously when the other party suffers a financial loss they would have to be compensated. There is however a moral dimension to canceling contracts over and beyond the monetary loss. The Sages considered one who did so, as being a person of little faith. So, the halakha provided a mechanism whereby such people would be publicly rebuked in the synagogue. The text of such a rebuke [mi shparah] calls on G-d to judge them even as He judged the generations of the flood, the people of Sodom, and the Egyptians, all of whom did not keep their promises (Choshen Mishpat,Section 198, subsection 1; Section 204, subsection1).

White-collar crime is conducted in secret and this flows from arrogance, assuming that nobody witnesses such crime or that one is above the law. The knowledge that there is an all seeing and all knowing G-d, Who will punish this crime, is the best, and often the last, protection against white-collar crime.

A Modest Soul

Modestly in Judaism, is not restricted to matters of dress or the intermingling of the sexes. It applies equally to patterns of consumption and relieves the pressure on people to increase their wealth. Such pressures create a society that is the antithesis of Judaism since it intensifies social rifts, makes materialism the sole focus of life, and causes people to accept immoral ways of earning money, when other ways fail..

As befits the descendants of Avraham our role models are different from those of Bilaam. “The Talmid Chakham provides for his family according to his means, without excessive devotion to this. His clothing should neither be that of kings [fashion trendsetters] nor that of poor people”(Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot, chapter 5,halakhot 2,4-13). This codified the verse in the Tanach “You shall walk modestly before HaShem”(Michah 6:8).

“Go to the ant you sluggard”(Proverbs 6:6), is hailed as a good message for us to be diligent, work hard and devote ourselves to wealth creation. Yet the Rabbis saw this as a message to be avoided, since it is the epitome of foolishness and wasted endeavor.” The ant lives only for one season and eats only two grains of wheat. Yet it labors ceaselessly to amass a fortune.

Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

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



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