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Q&A : Business Ethics – July 2010 – “Jewish Life” magazine

Cash is king – what’s the Torah view?

The Torah deals with everything in life, obviously including how to relate to money.  But it’s not just about the physical money itself. It’s about what money buys :  food, clothes etc.  – this is what we call parnossah, sustenance. And to have parnossah is a gift from Hashem.

How so?

The benching after meals refers to the fact that Hashem provides sustenance not only for us, but also to all of His creations, because every living creature needs to eat in order to survive. So if you think about it, one of the biggest ongoing miracles of the world is G-d providing sustenance for all living things. So what we are actually thanking Hashem for in the first blessing of the benching  is not just for the bread on our table, but for the fact that Hashem provides sustenance for all living creatures of the world.

Taking into account the fact that Hashem provides for us, what then is our role in earning parnossah?

Hashem set up the world in such a way that He is the source of all parnossah, but we have to do our best to earn it. The Talmud says that on Rosh Hashana, Hashem determines how much parnossah we will get for the year. But we have to work for it, and not rely on miracles. We access the parnossah through the work that we do, but we always have to remember that it comes from Hashem. And that of course is the big challenge.

The universal challenge…

Yes, this is a challenge in all areas of life. Another classic example from the Torah’s point of view is in the area of health. You have to do your best to live healthily and to get medical treatment when ill, realising that the healing is ultimately in Hashem’s hands, not in the hands of the doctor who is merely the instrument through which Hashem works. So when we understand that all money comes from Hashem, then that changes the way we view it.

How does it change our view on it?

We realise that money is a gift for which we have to be grateful. And because G-d gives it to us, we then have to deal with it in accordance with His will.

How does Hashem tell us to deal with it?

For example, to give a portion (between ten and twenty percent) to charity, tzedokkah, we are not giving away our own money, we are just allocating the money the way the giver, Hashem, entrusted it to us to do. It’s like in business – if someone gives you funds to invest for them, you cannot spend that money for your own needs – you have to invest it on their behalf. So too, Hashem gives us this money – the vast majority of which He actually allows us to use for our own benefit – and a designated portion He instructs us to give to tzedaka causes.

That is about spending it – but what guidelines does Hashem give us on how to earn the money?

When we say we have to earn the money and put in the effort, because all parnossah comes from Hashem, then it follows that we also need to follow all the ethical laws that come from Hashem about how to go about earning this money. That means that we can’t access more by unethical methods. So firstly, to use unethical business methods is wrong because Hashem says so. But it won’t even help, because if we truly believe that all sustenance comes from Hashem, then one cannot access more than ones allocated amount. And it is impossible that Hashem pre-determined that one would access their allocated amount through unethical means.

But if one does access it through unethical means, why does Hashem still give it?

Hashem gives us free choice. He says ‘do not steal’, but if we do, that is a choice. But we will never get more than the portion allocated to us, regardless of how we choose to get it.

But the laws of business ethics seem very obscure – where do we find them?

They are not obscure at all.  In fact, a major part of the halacha (Jewish law) is devoted to financial matters and how to behave in accordance with G-d’s will in these areas. The Code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, is divided into four sections. The first, “Orach Chaim”, deals with the laws and principles of the daily, weekly and other cyclical mitzvot such as davening, Shabbos, Yom Tov etc. The second, “Yoreh Deah”, deals with the laws and principles of mitzvot such as kashrut, niddah, honouring parents, mezuzah and many more. The third is “Even HaEzer”, which deals with the halacha of marriage and divorce in all its apects. And the fourth is “Choshen Mishpat”, which deals with the halacha of monetary matters.

Like what…

The laws of contracts, labour relations, competition, loans, documents, testimony, the obligation to  pay tax, integrity of keeping ones word, not lying or defrauding any person, business, or the government by filling in false information, paying workers on time. These are just a fraction of the laws, demonstrating that this area is just as complex as any other religious obligation. In fact, there are sources in the Talmud which say that the monetary laws are the most complex laws in the Torah.

But often the most ignored….

Yes, and that is the message here. A Jew must take all four sections of the Shulchan Aruch equally seriously. Judaism is a comprehensive system for living every aspect of life in accordance with the will of G-d.  It is an holistic system that cannot be compartmentalised.  To be a Torah Jew means embracing all aspects of the Shulchan Aruch, whether it is kosher food or kosher money.

So how do we change our mindset?

The mind shift that has to take place is firstly realising how important these ethical issues are, and secondly how complex. It is not simple. There are many details, and people have to get into the habit of learning more about it and asking shaalahs, questions about it, the same way one would in other areas of halacha in Jewish life.

Posted on 16 July 2010 in Text, Your Q&A