For the Sins Which We Have Committed Before Thee...

In the Marketplace

A Business Ethics Checklist

Dr. Meir Tamari

From: Bisde Hemed, vol 9-10 - 1994

The "Al Chet" is a public confession of actions, for which we, as a community, ask for G-d's forgiveness. Phrased in the plural, it is a re-affirmation of our communal character whereby we each have a moral responsibility for one another.

One of the most overlooked themes of this confession is its emphasis on unethical behavior. Fully 16 of the verses are devoted to honesty and integrity in monetary matters; what we commonly call nowadays "Business Ethics." Each variation in language and emphasis, calls attention to another facet of modern behavior in the marketplace as entrepreneurs, creditors, employers or employees, consumers or producers and as citizens of the state. The following are some ideas, relevant to present day behavior, expressed in the "Al Chet."

By Acting Callously - באמוץ הלב
We act callously and insensitively when we disregard or even turn our backs on the needs of the distressed and disadvantaged in our community. A Jew is expected to allocate 10% of his earning to charitable purposes and we act callously when we withhold that part or our earning, which was given to us for that purpose. Shaming of staff or peers in front of others and any harassment or bullying behavior in the office would also be forms of callousness.

Both in Public and In Secret in Secret - בגלוי ובסתר
Daylight robbery is obviously committed "in public", but many economic crimes, in particular, can be easily hidden from public scrutiny. Insider trading, non-discloser of material information, selling defective merchandise, using false weights or deceptive packaging and utilizing misleading advertising are all examples of "secret" crimes. Copy tapes, computer programs and other protected materials are examples of "secret" thefts.

Knowingly and Deceitfully - בדעת ובמרמה
Jewish Law forbids the defrauding, deceiving or misleading of people in all matters referring to buying and selling. This law applies equally to Jews and Gentiles.

Oppressing a Fellow Man - בהונאת רע
Oppression need not only be blatantly physical, there is also monetary oppression through overcharging or excessive profits. One is guilty of such a crime when taking unfair advantage of another person's financial stress or ignorance of the market conditions. As mundane an act as engaging a shop-keeper in a sales discussion, when one has absolutely no intention of purchasing at his store, is also forbidden. Big businesses who delay payments beyond agreed limits, thereby harming other companies, are clearly acting in breach of this law.

By Violence - בחזק יד
Violence need not be a physical act. Withholding by force that which belongs to another - withholding wages which are due; denying loans that are taken; misusing trust funds or client's moneys; misappropriating charitable funds; squatting in another's home; coercing another, by social pressure or badgering, to make a sale (even at the market price) are all considered to be forms of violence.

By Defaming G-d's Name - בחלול השם
Any action that brings G-d or the Jewish people into disrepute is one of most serious crimes in Jewish Law. The Talmud cites economic misbehavior as one of the most common examples of this. Fraudulent bankruptcy; white collar crime; tax evasion and failing to pay the company's Social Security bill are all obvious examples. The subsequent defamation G-d's name is increased by the degree of Jewish identity, learning or communal status of the culprit.

By the Evil Impulse - ביצר הרע
The Yetzer HsRah (Evi! Inclination) for obtaining and retaining material wealth. is probably the most powerful of all. Money is not considered an evil in Judaism and therefore even this "Evil Inclination" can be used positively when controlled. For this reason there are more commandments carding "kosher money" (at least 120) than there are for example, carding Kosher food.

Wittingly and Unwittingly - ביודעים ובלא יודעים
We tend to rationalize our deceitful acts, making witting acts into unwitting ones. An acceptance of prevailing lax ethical standards, the development of "gray areas" in morality, and the social pressure for a higher standard of living, further help to blur the distinction between permitted and forbidden actions.

By Bribery - בכפת שוחד
Bribery is not just using money to influence the judicial system. Anybody able to provide information or to affect business decisions is in affect a judge. Undisclosed payments, kickbacks, and illegal gifts are all examples of serious forms of bribery. Such bribery demoralizes not only the recipient, but also the giver, it is not the mouse that steals, but the hole!

By Fraud and Falsehood - בכחש ובכזב
It is quite legitimate to present goods in the most favorable light possible. Falsehood (Gneivat Da'at - lit. stealing the minds of others) in Jewish Law applies to taking advantage of another's ignorance or naivete. This includes deceptive advertising, extravagant claims and concealing defects or faults in goods. Furthermore, consultancy agencies and financial services which conceal conflicts of interest or provide harmful advice are considered by the Torah as if they have placed a "stumbling block in the path of the blind." Anyone knowing providing substandard work or services (including of course accountants, lawyers and landlords) would also fit into this category.

In Commerce and In Business - במשא ומתן
This sanctification of G-d's name in all circumstances and especially through exemplary behavior in the marketplace, is obligatory on all Jews. According to the Talmud, one of the first questions that we will be asked in the next world is whether or not we were honest in business, In other words, being dishonest in business means that you have broken both human and Divine law. The major reason for dishonesty is uncertainty and the faith in G-d as the ultimate provider is the protection against it. This allows the risk-taking essential to entrepeneurship, but it should be remembered that faith in G-d as the provider also implies the need for honesty, moral business and ethical accountability.

In Eating and Drinking - במאכל ובמשתה
Modern-day gluttony far beyond eating and drinking. Always wanting to have "more" creates a search for a constantly rising standard of living, often through dishonest means. Conspicuous consumption and exaggerated consumerism are also a betrayal of basic standard of self control.

Usury and Interest - בנשך ובמרבית
As an act of charity, it is forbidden to take interest on loans made to fellow Jews. Indeed, it is obligatory to make interest - free loans to fellow Jews. Such acts enable the recipients to either avoid poverty altogether or to break out of the vicious poverty cycle.

Brazen Arrogance - בעזות מצח
This repeats the disapproval of callousness. It also includes browbeating competitors, employees and debtors; defaulting on debts and ignoring rules and regulations. Arrogance leads people to ignore the pain and loss that they cause others.

Ensnaring People - בצדית רע
Naive clients can easily be misled by high powered salesmen into borrowing money that they cannot ever repay or into buying goods or services they neither need, nor can afford. Similarly, misrepresenting business information can fool shareholders or creditors into making decisions which ignores its obligations to the poor, the weak and the old cannot endure. Selfless behavior is considered the sign of a refined Jewish Character.

By Egoism and Selfishness - בצרות עין
Putting one's needs first need not be selfish, but ignoring others and refusing to help certainly is. Jewish thought teaches that any society which ignores its obligations to the poor, the weak and the old cannot endure. Selfless behavior is considered the sign of a refined Jewish character.

By Breach of Trust - בתשומת יד
All financial and business deals are based on trust, a breach of which can lead to severe economic disruption. The Torah expects all commitments, even verbal to be fulfilled. The breaking of a verbal commitment, even where no loss was incurred, would traditionally bring a public rebuke in the Synagogue: He who punished the people of the flood and the inhabitants of Sodom will not overlook one who violates: That which issues from your mouth you shall fulfil.

Yom Kippur atones only for what goes between human beings and G-d. As for what we do wrong to each other, only remorse and restitution can ensure atonement before G-d.

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