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The Challenge of Wealth

Parshas Yisro

By Dr. Meir Tamari

The centerpiece of this parsha is undoubtedly the Ten Commandments, later repeated with slight changes in parshat Vaetchanan (Deut 5: 6-18).). At one time, they were recited by the Levites together with the 15 Songs of Degrees (Ps 120-134), as part of the daily Temple service. After the destruction of the 2nd Temple, these Commandments were part of the public organized mandatory prayer service in the synagogues. Only when apostates maintained that this was all that was necessary, was this custom stopped. Instead, individuals were still expected to continue to recite them privately. Yet there are today, siddurim in which they no longer appear. There are synagogues, where despite centuries old custom, they no longer appear as part of the Aron HaKodesh.. Even though, rote learning of texts is common in many schools, I have great difficulty in finding either boys or girls who can recite these Ten Commandments. It may well be that herein lies part of the reason for the separation of ethics in all spheres, but predominantly in the area of money, business and the market place, from daily religious life today. Perhaps, our lives are ethically and morally poorer even while Jewish identification and learning grows, because of the neglect and irrelevance in our educational system, both of young people and adults alike, of this covenant between G-d and Israel.

Our sages spoke of the 5 commandments that are between Mankind and G-d and the later 5 that are between people. However, their purpose was in no way to separate religion from morality. On the contrary, their separation makes the social crimes two fold, once between people and secondly at the same time acts against the G-d who commanded all of them. Thereby, social, sexual and economic immorality, all become religious sins. Idolatry [Deut.12: 31], sexual immorality [Lev. 18: 26-27) and theft [Deut.25:16] are all considered abominations in the Torah. "The beginning of Your word is truth and Your just commandments are forever " (Ps.119). Rava explained that from the conclusions of the Ten Commandments- mitzvoth bein adam le chavero- we learnt the truth of the first ones between adam la makom. Rashi, quoting the midrash, tells us that the nations of the world were offered the Torah first. They complained that the Lord was no different from other gods or kings and gave commandments solely for His own aggrandizement and glory. Later, when they heard the social 5 commandments, they confessed that the beginning ones were perfect truth.( Talmud, Kiddushin, 31a)

White-collar crimes are performed in secrecy; often it is only the fear of being discovered that keeps us moral. When the All Seeing, All Knowing and unbribable G-d forbids them, then there can be no secrets. " You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measures, in weights and in liquid measures. Just weights and measures you shall have. I am the Lord your G-d, that brought you out of the land of Egypt " (Levit., 19:35). This linkage between the Exodus and these laws flows from the fact that the G-d who distinguished between the seed of a first born and others, the most private and secret knowledge imaginable, will surely know when we soak our measures or falsify our weights in secret in order to defraud, and punish us"(Talmud, Bava Metzia 61b).

It is tempting to see the social laws, mishpatim, as being self- evident.. Indeed, Maimionides, the Sefer HaChinukhc and others maintained that we could have arrived at them even if the Torah had not mandated them. However, this makes them simply the creation of human intelligence, no different from any other codex. The majority view has been that the components of Torah, Chukim, Eiduyot and Mishpatim, are all the results of Divine wisdom, beyond anything that could be arrived at by mere human intelligence. Abarbanel sees this as evident in two areas. Firstly, the Divine wisdom extends the concepts at play beyond the human mind. Furthermore, the Torah's insistence on Divine reward and punishment ensures that people know there is no escape from the results of their actions in white- collar crime, exploitation and injustice.

Based on the Seventh Commandment, all the codes rule that it is forbidden by the Torah, to steal anything, even the smallest item or one of no value. This applies to the wealth of a Jew and a Non-Jew, to the property of a adult or of a minor and pertains both to men and to women.( Mishneh Torah, Hikhot Geneivah ,chapter 1,halkhot1-2; Tur /Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, subsection 1). It is true that there are other authorities who claim that theft from an idolater is only of rabbinic origin . However, this does not mean that such theft is permitted; after all much of our observance of Shabbat, Kashrut or prayer is mandated by rabbinic decree and yet this does not free us from their observance. In a similar manner, the Talmudic observation that the words in the Ten Commandments refer to buying slaves, does not mean that the injunction not to steal was not issued at Sinai. The basis for this rabbinic observation lies in the fact that both murder and sexual immorality that are mentioned here together with theft carry a death penalty; the only form of theft that carries such a penalty, is the theft of humans for sale.

This same source in the Codes provides an educational framework that prohibits theft beyond the damage done to the owner, thereby emphasizing the moral and spiritual damage suffered by the thief. So one may not steal in jest, nor simply to anger the owner, nor with the intention to return the goods, nor even to be able to pay the fines laid done in the Torah. A minor who steals is liable to corporal punishment, even though not legally liable. This in contrast to the lack of punishment for their transgressing laws of kashrut etc.

Although we have brought the Codes dealing with theft, they include robbery, fraud and oppression in the commandment "Thou shall not steal". Together, they prevent false weights and measures, mandate the returning of lost articles [this includes sharing information to prevent economic loss], forbid the use of force to obtain somebody else's wealth [retaining wages, using trust fund for ones own benefit, forcing another to sell something that they do not really want to sell, even at market prices, perhaps would apply to hostile takeovers and aggressive salesmanship]. The Ramban includes all the laws of damages, bailees and buying and selling. They forbid any way that takes somebody else's wealth away from them against their will or without their knowledge.

Furthermore, both Maimonides and the Ramban make them part of the Noachide laws that apply to non-Jews also. The Rambam places some of them under the injunction to establish a just legal system, while the Ramban, deduces all of them from " Thou shall not steal"

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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