The Laws of Finance – Mishpatim 5775

This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim, introduces many of the laws of finance, torts, damages and jurisprudence.  There is here, and throughout the Torah a tremendous emphasis on justice, honesty and righteousness.  The eighth of the Ten Commandments, “Do not steal” encompasses all financial crimes, damages and issues of business ethics,  everything from the ultimate theft – kidnapping– down to overcharging a customer.  Elsewhere, the Torah also enumerates many specific financial crimes, such as:

You shall not cheat one another…You shall not oppress your friend, nor rob him…

You shall not move a boundary…

You shall not commit a perversion in justice, in measures of length, weight, or volume. You shall have correct scales, correct weights, correct dry measures and correct liquid measures…

The prophets frequently chastised the Jewish people for not being honest, and reminded them that justice is what G-d most desires from us.

It has been told to you, mankind, what is good and what G-d requires of you; only to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your G-d.

…[He who] does not oppress any man; does not keep collateral; does not rob any loot; gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing; withholds his hand from harming the poor; does not take usury or interest; obeys my ordinances… he shall surely live!

Every man shall turn back from the robbery that is in his hands. He who knows shall repent and G-d and G-d will relent…

The Sages also stressed the critical importance of honesty in business and financial matters:

When a person is brought to his final judgment [in the World to Come] he is asked the following questions: “Did you deal with people in good faith?…”

Come and see how great is the impact of theft! The generation of the flood committed all types of sins, but their final decree [of destruction] was signed because of stealing…

One reason for this emphasis on ethical conduct is that that people judge the effectiveness and validity of Judaism by the behavior of its followers.  Therefore, every Jew is — like it or not — a representative of Judaism:

One who studies Torah… but is not honest in his dealings with people, and does not speak pleasantly to others, what do people say about him? Woe to so-and-so who has learned Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teachers who taught him Torah…

Even Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can only atone for sins between a person and G-d. For offences against other people, Yom Kippur is completely ineffective until the victim has been compensated, and has forgiven the one who injured him.

Judaism also encourages one to earn an honest living.  The Mishnah obligates every father to teach his son a trade and requires every person to ensure for himself an honest means of obtaining a livelihood.  Labor is also valued because one who is engaged in productive activity is less likely to be drawn into inappropriate diversions.  Poverty is certainly not considered a positive state, and is likely to lead a person to wrongdoing.  Working to earn an income also teaches a basic principal of life: that good only comes through effort.  Some of the greatest Sages, who were vital links in the chain of Torah transmission, also worked for their livelihood.  Rabbi Judah the Prince, author of the Mishnah, was a wealthy businessman; Maimonides was a physician; Don Isaac Abarbanel was a financial advisor to the government; Rashi was a wine merchant and Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (the Chafetz Chaim)  owned a grocery store.

The Talmud also requires that a person choose a profession that does not involve any wrongdoing, that is dignified, and that contributes positively to the “settlement of the world.” Based on this idea, a Jew would be forbidden, to make a living from something like gambling, since it does not contribute to the improvement of the world.   Professional gamblers are actually disqualified as witnesses in a Jewish court. Rashi offers a fascinating insight into why this is so: “Since they are not acquainted or familiar with people’s efforts and pain [in the struggle for a livelihood], they do not care about causing others loss of money.”  A person who understands what it means to struggle for a livelihood can sympathize with others who also value their hard-earned money.  A righteous person does not acquire anything illicitly or without effort.  He values his possessions both because he has invested himself in obtaining them, and because he understands the tremendous potential for good inherent in his material wealth.

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