Parshas Mishpatim – Do we conduct our Business Honestly?

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In order for a Jew to run his business in accordance with the Torah, it is very important that he study the laws of Choshen Mishpot very carefully. The gemorah says that the first question we will be asked when we reach the next world is, “Did we conduct our business honestly?” The most difficult yetzer horah to overcome is one’s natural desire for wealth. Even people who are very sincere in their observance of all the other mitzvos may sometimes fail miserably in their business ethics. All of a sudden they become totally oblivious of their religious requirements. Money is a very powerful yetzer hora and can cause even the most honest person to lose his sense of moral reasoning and do something which is forbidden. Therefore, as part of the “Ten Commandments”, the Torah prohibits a person to even desire someone else’s possessions, for this would eventually lead to stealing and murder. (The story of Achav and Novos should serve as an example.) Not only does the Torah forbid outright theft, robbery, or swindlery, but the Torah even prohibits stealing thoughts or knowledge – a more subtle form of theft. Presenting a false impression is forbidden. Giving a person bad advice or taking advantage of someone’s ignorance of a product’s true value is forbidden under the law of – “in front of the blind do not put a stumbling block.” Anyone familiar with today’s advertising tactics knows how much dishonesty prevails in every facet of business. Just a casual glance at some advertisements will show you how many are misleading, if not outright dishonest claims. Take for instance, an advertisement for beer or cigarettes. They all give you the false impression that it’s the real cool way to live. The picture always shows slim people and happy times. Instead of showing pictures of sick people in the hospital dying from lung cancer or a horrid scene of a car crash caused by beer-drinking, the ads try to deceive you into believing it’s the best thing in the world to do. A look at any breakfast cereal box will show you what misleading advertising, is all about. They print up a long list of vitamins it contains and show a picture of a world champion karate expert or Olympic basketball player. One is led to believe that all it takes is a few spoonfuls of this particular brand of cereal to get oversized muscles and become the world champion.

One of the most skillful business tactics is commonly known as “bait and switch.” A store advertises a well-known brand product at a ridiculously low price to lure the customer. When the customer comes to the store, the salesman tries to convince him that for just a little extra he can buy a much better product. He will try to persuade him that the advertised product is really an inferior product, and that he would be much better off buying another product. The Torah clearly prohibits this type of advice. Firstly, it may not be true and therefore is prohibited under “stay away from falsehood”. But even if it is true, this advice is forbidden under the law of “in front of the blind do not put a stumbling block.”. Giving advice when you have a personal bias and stand to gain is forbidden. ( See Rashi’s examples on this posuk.) In many cases, when the customer fails to take the bait, he finds that the store is suddenly out of the item; they just sold the last one. The advertisement was only to bait you to come into the store. The word “blind” is not taken literally but refers to any person who is ignorant of the true facts. A person giving false advice is in violation of “in front of the blind do not put a stumbling block.” A salesperson has an obligation to be extremely honest with his customers. Unfortunately, there are few salesmen who meet this criterion.

Salesmen are given special bonuses if they sell a particular brand. Naturally, when the customer asks the salesman for his advice, the salesman will recommend the one which gives him the largest commission and not the one that is truly the best for the customer. Rip-off artists stand ready to cheat any customer who seems ignorant of the real values of a product. A good salesman is one who can convince a customer to buy accessories for which he has absolutely no use. A salesman who knows that something is wrong with a particular product is required to tell this to his customer. He has no right to remain silent if he knows that the product has a defect. The Shulchan Aruch clearly forbids beautifying a slave, animal or vessel so that it appears in better condition than it really is. Certainly one may not cover up blemishes so that the buyer is unaware of the true value of the object. A car salesman who tries to hide a mechanical defect is certainly going against halacha. Somebody told me of a particular store that has been running a “going out of business sale” for the past ten years. Just imagine you lost your diamond ring which is worth more than $5,000. Two weeks later your house is robbed; fortunately, you have theft insurance. The temptation to include the diamond ring in the insurance claim is very great. Would you be able to resist the temptation to make a false claim? After all, the insurance company will never know that the ring was lost and not stolen! I pray that we are never put to the test! Being honest is not always easy, especially when there is lots of money to be made and you know you won’t be caught.

Making false insurance claims is outright stealing . You are not only stealing from the insurance company, but you’re stealing from thousands of people who will in turn have to pay higher premiums for their insurance because of all the fraudulent claims being made. So in the long run you are stealing from everyone.

A story is told that once the Baal Shem Tov was traveling on a coach. On the way, the coachman stopped the horses in order to pick some fruit growing in a nearby field. He asked the Baal Shem Tov to call him the moment he saw anyone watching. As soon as the coachman was about to take one of the fruits, the Baal Shem called out, “They see! They see!” The coachman quickly ran back to the coach, but was surprised that he saw no one. The Baal Shem pointed his finger toward heaven and said, “Yes, there truly is someone Who always sees.” Yes. Perhaps if we would realize this than we would run our businesses more honestly.

“Competition is very intense,” explained a salesman friend of mine. “If we wouldn’t use all these high pressure tactics and clever scams we’d be out of business in no time,” he claimed.

It seems that the basic ingredient we’re missing is true emunah and bitachon. We’ve forgotten that it’s Hashem Who controls the entire economy and decides how much we earn. We think that if we work harder and perhaps cheat a little bit we will make a little bit more. What foolish nonsense! If a person would really be convinced that he cannot make one penny more than what is coming to him, he certainly wouldn’t be tempted to do anything dishonest.