Business Principles Embedded in Jewish Law

Business Principles Embedded in Jewish Law

By Al Shams

A 1768 parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer, via Wikimedia Commons, depicts the Ten Commandments. The parchment is housed at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana in Amsterdam.
A 1768 parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer, via Wikimedia Commons, depicts the Ten Commandments. The parchment is housed at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana in Amsterdam.

Jewish leaders in ancient times believed that honesty and high ethical business standards were important parts of Jewish law. These laws applied not only to commercial transactions between Jews, but also to transactions between Jews and non-Jews.

Commerce and trade are as old as mankind. They have flourished among all types of people, regardless of culture, religion or color. You can imagine a farmer with many apples but no sheep — let’s do a trade.

That same basic concept is at the heart of all trade today. Without trade, we would not enjoy our high standard of living. We live in a highly interdependent society. If trust is broken, living standards decline, and conflict ensues.

Maimonides believed that ethical business practices were one of the highest priorities of Jewish law. There is no dichotomy between ethical and ritual behavior; they are both part of the same G-d-given standards of morality.

I have long believed that men of varying backgrounds relate to one another through commerce. Once a mutually beneficial relationship has been developed, personal friendships and respect grow. But if one side feels cheated or wronged, conflict could result. Often it is not the loss of money but the loss of trust that makes one very angry.

Conflict is destructive to society and should be avoided. Conflict is not G-d’s way.

Some of these laws are listed below. Clearly many of the Ten Commandments apply, but we wish to explore other, less obvious rules:

  • Do not engage in dishonest or immoral practices.
  • Do not steal.
  • Distance yourself from false matters.
  • Do not bribe.
  • Use just scales and measurements.
  • Speak truth to each man.
  • Do not place a stumbling block in the path of the blind.
  • Do not give false or bad advice to the unwary; do not place temptation before the unwary.
  • Wages owed to workers should be paid promptly, without delays.
  • Do not take advantage of one who needs work; a worker’s wage must be fair.
  • Go beyond the requirements of the law.
  • Practice kindness, justice and compassion.
  • Do not press your claims to the fullest extent of the law. Deal with others in a spirit of tolerance, compassion and compromise.
  • Do not take unfair advantage of another in business, and refrain from the appearance of impropriety.
  • One’s good name and the reputation of the Jewish people are important and must be safeguarded through honest and ethical dealings.
  • Care for your environment.
  • Do not needlessly waste the resources that G-d has provided.
  • Care for the stranger.
  • Do not oppress a stranger who lives in your land; the same laws apply to him as yourself. We were once strangers in Egypt.
  • Help the needy and powerless.
  • Do not harden your heart or shut your hand from your needy brother.

The spirit and intent of these rules are clear. Each of us could think of other standards of ethical and fair conduct.

Our challenge is to incorporate these rules and their spirit into our daily lives.

Al Shams is a Sandy Springs resident, a former CPA, and an investment professional with more than 35 years’ industry experience.

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