Judaism: Honesty in Business

25 July 2017 | A section of the Talmud speculates about the questions God will ask a person about his or her life after death. The first question is somewhat surprising. God asks, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat, 31a)

Honesty in business is an important ethic in Judaism. Judaism doesn’t place a greater value either in being poor or being wealthy. Instead, Judaism focuses on how a person behaves, and how a person attains his or her possessions. A Jew can’t sustain himself, or acquire wealth, by unfair or immoral means.

The injunction for honesty in business applies to how business owners treat their customers. The Torah requires them to use fair and accurate weights and measures. A Jew is strictly and explicitly forbidden to “skim off the top” or otherwise fail to give customers exactly what they purchased. Such conduct is beyond immoral – it is abhorrent to God. (Leviticus 19:36, Deuteronomy 25:13-16) The prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind applies to a business owner, because trickery or use of unfairly acquired information in effect makes the customer blind. Stealing is prohibited, as the Talmud attributes the destruction of humanity in the story of Noah to the sin of theft. (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedin 108b)

Business owners also must treat their employees fairly and with respect. They must pay their employees’ wages on time, which in Biblical times meant daily. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) The Talmud ties this requirement to the mitzvah of pekuach nefesh, explaining that the worker places his life in the employer’s hands, trusting the employer to treat him fairly and honestly. It’s immoral for the employer to betray that trust. (Talmud Vavli, Baba Metzia 112a) Employers also must treat employees according to the prevailing standard of the community. The employer can’t gain an advantage by depriving employees of a benefit or practice customarily offered, such as meals or periods of rest. (Talmud Bavli, Baba Metzia 83a)

When people operate their business fairly and honestly, they not only make a living but they increase the peace in the world. A dishonest business destroys trust. Nearly one quarter of the Shulchan Aruch provides rules for the workplace and business, demonstrating how important Judaism considers honesty in business.

An excerpt from Idiot’s Guides As Easy As It Gets: Judaism


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