Divine Guidance Chapter 2 Part IV
Encounters in Commercial Settings

Introduction - In this concluding section on mitzvot that guide us with respect to our relationships with others, we will focus on matters that arise out of our encounters in commercial settings, whether in the field or the marketplace. While the principles of laissez-faire may seek to limit in certain ways the hand of government in the economic sphere, the Bible teaches us that, as to preserving certain principles inherent in the mitzvot, God’s hand remains very much in our affairs.

While it, for some, does not expressly contain a mitzvah, let’s read Leviticus 25:14. This verse anticipates the creation of commercial law between buyer and seller. While we won’t go there, the sages go into great detail in the Mishnah and later texts on specific requirements of how the commercial system must be structured. Instead, and I know this will give you great relief, we’ll only stick today with the overarching principles in the mitzvot.

1. Leviticus 25:14  14 When you sell something to or buy something from your neighbor, you must not cheat each other.

Q1. What’s the broad aim of this mitzvah? Think of limits in the marketplace this mitzvah might justify. Think of ways people might take it too far. To what more specific ways of being and living could and should it lead us? 

It is essentially to prevent wronging another in business. But, let’s be more specific: what’s intended here, do you think?

We must be honest and refrain from overcharging. Making a profit honestly is expected and appropriate, but gouging through exorbitant profits crosses the line. We would not want to be taken advantage of as the customer, nor should we, as the seller, be the one taking advantage of another. This is another illustration of Divine disapproval of excessive behavior. We see here more basically a principle of fair dealing that actually permeates many of the fair trade and consumer protection laws that are in effect in our own time.

Chinuch teaches that fairness leads to peace, but fraud and wronging others cause decay in civilization.)

Wouldn’t some business folks want to argue with this? If so, what might their argument be? 

 If the parties are of equal power or the buyer understands the profit in the price and agrees to it, the rule should be different. Chinuch actually seems sympathetic with this view and suggests damages might not be due in such a case.

2. (2 Readings)

We now begin to consider a series of mitzvot that guide us in the proper conduct of employer-employee relations. What do we learn from these first two?

Leviticus 19:13 13 You must not oppress your neighbors or rob them. Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight.

Deuteronomy 24:15  15 Pay them their salary the same day, before the sun sets, because they are poor, and their very life depends on that pay, and so they don’t cry out against you to the Lord. That would make you guilty.

We must treat employees fairly. The sages generally say we must not oppress them by delaying payment of wages and must indeed pay on time. As we have discussed, this has been interpreted as paying a day laborer the day the work is done and the night laborer before the next day. Why? 

Discussion of why the money should be transferred from the one who has benefitted from the work (generally the better off) to the one who did it (usually the one very much in need), with the conclusion that respect, fair dealing, and mercy would require this to be.

This could also relate to any situation of wrongly held possessions.

Q2. What do these mitzvot teach us about proper employer/employee relationships? What do they teach us more broadly about values in life?

Now read Deuteronomy 23:25-26. There are three mitzvot in these verses that create a beautiful and balanced set of principles that also govern proper employer-employee relations.

3. Deuteronomy 23:25-26.   25 When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat enough grapes to satisfy your appetite; but you are not to put any in your basket. 26 When you enter your neighbor’s field of growing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand; but you are not to put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.

Q3. What doe this teach us more broadly about values in life?

How does how this balance work?

The employer is required to respect the employee and to see the employee as a fellow human being, not as a tool, object, or means. The laborer is to be seen, too, as having a stake in the production beyond the minimal pay he might receive. The employee must be fair and have/show  duty to the employer. So, irrespective of their differences, employer and employee are bound to a common purpose, which is pleasing to God.

So, while the employee may be able to eat out of the produce he’s working, he may not eat while he’s working or eat to excess. Further, he may not eat of growing crops, but only out of harvested or already gathered crops. He owes the employer full and good work.

In these ways, both are to share and live true to the mutual goals of respect and shared duty to the success of the enterprise. Thus, adherence to these mitzvot will bring about respect by all to each other and the interests of the enterprise, thus likely yielding increased production to the benefit of both the employer and employee.) 

How do employer/ employee relations too often vary from such principles, and how could they be made to fit them better?

Employers too often think of employees as means of production - means rather than fellows - to be exploited to get the last ounce of profit. Many employees think mostly about their own interests and see their job as essentially entailing a struggle with the powerful, oppressive boss to win as many concessions as they can wrangle. Thus, bargaining often comes down to getting or forcing as much out of the other side as possible.

 The mitzvot teach instead a relationship of mutuality. The employer respects the rights, needs, and interests of the employee. The employee lives within limits and constraints and with duties owing to the employer, the enterprise, and God. This mutuality both shows proper respect to the other and furthers the success of the enterprise. Thus, acting in the way of the mitzvot is beneficial to all who have a stake in the work of the enterprise and the community of which it’s a part. This is pleasing to the God who guides us on how to build it and blesses its well-being.

And Now to Lending

4.  (3 Readings)

Leviticus 25:37  37   37 Do not take interest from a neighbor when you loan him money or take a profit when you sell him food. 

Deuteronomy 23:20  20 You are not to lend at interest to your brother, no matter whether the loan is of money, food or anything else that can earn interest. 

Exodus 22:24  24  If you loan money to one of my people who is poor, you are not to deal with him as would a creditor; and you are not to charge him interest.

Q4. Why would the mitzvot prohibit exacting interest on a loan? What concerns drive these directions? Given the fact that loans in our own time generally involve interest, what circumstances might we believe create activity that ought reasonably to be excepted? Yet, what concerns still remain?

(We are not to lend within our faith community (here, it was fellow Israelites) with interest. Nor are our fellows to borrow with interest. Nor is someone to facilitate such a transaction. But rather one is expected to loan without interest to those in need and refrain from pressing for payment when the borrower is unable to pay (though the debtor has obligations to make every effort to pay and, if he can pay, be subject to court action to force re-payment).)

A.      Before we get to rules that affect those outside the community, let’s 1) focus first on the rationale for not permitting lending with interest, and 2) consider whether such a principle has any meaning for us in our heavily credit-oriented society.

B.    The idea begins with the notion that we should not treat our brethren from a superior position. Further, helping a person in need is not a business proposition. We’re commanded to help such a person, not make a profit off of him. The lending relationship has a touch of enslavement in that the borrower is subservient to the lender until the debt is paid off. To be sure, this is not to the same degree, but the feel of it is noxious enough to undergird, I think, these mitzvot.

Lending money should be seen as a charitable act of a very high order. Indeed, according to Maimonides, greater is one who lends than one who gives, and greater than all is one who by lending helps a poor man help himself. Further, these rules contemplate a society of people who are close as family, fellows and others who walk together in the Way of God. Helping such people with whom we are this close, again, is a duty, not a business.

2. As time passed and the economy moved from mostly agrarian to commercial, the basis for lending changed. Finance became a fundamental part of the economy and integral to doing business. Parties in need of funding were more and more on an equal plane with those who provided funding, and even, in some ways, their superiors. So, sages found ways to accommodate such realities while holding to these rules. They, in effect, created financings that were more of a business deal or investment than a loan.

One could argue this was a fiction designed to get around the rule. But what principle or objective does it at least notionally serve better than a loan? 

By creating some greater reward/risk in the success of the business for the lender, the lender and the borrower become more like partners who are somewhat equal, at least equal to their share of the investment. This has less of the hierarchical or master/servant feel of lender/borrower.)

C. Yet, in modern times, we clearly have all throughout the world, both within and without the Jewish world, lending with interest. This is surely so because of the changes in the way the economy and relationships within it work. So, is there any residue of meaning for us?

(One, I think, is to retain the concern about lording our power and wealth over others in a way in which we use our money to dominate or unfairly enrich ourselves at the expense of others and their weakness, however the transaction for funds is structured.)

D. What do we make of the inherent permission to make and receive loans with interest to and from those outside our faith community?

(Some sages say that there is nothing inherently wrong in loans with interest. Rather the purpose is to require a higher degree of kindness among all people who walk in the way of God.  

I think, as with other mitzvot we’ve considered in this chapter on relationship with others, we naturally start with deeper feelings of obligations to those with whom were closest. As we extend our reach and Gods sovereignty, our love and duty extends with it. Our dream, effort, and goal are to see all as brothers as we approach the mountain on that day. As we do, we hope to avoid having relationships characterized by the worst features of creditor/debtor relationships.

Yet, in the meantime, we realize, both within and without our closest community, that significant changes have occurred in economic relationships in more recent times. To the extent that fairness and right standards govern such relationships, we may be satisfied that our business practices include finance of the sort that involves lending with interest.)

If, for example, the pledge is in the form of tools that are essential for farming in the day, they may be subject to being restored during the day and returned at night.

As the mitzvah says, we can’t take a pledge at all of food utensils.

Further, we can’t go into the borrower’s house to take the pledge or take the pledge by force. Why, and what do we take away from this prohibition?

We must be caring and merciful to the borrower, as we have discussed. That respect means, at the least, that we can’t humiliate the borrower. If the debtor is acting unreasonably and inappropriately, the court can enforce the lender’s rights. But the lender, recall, can’t act as a lord and master. Going into another’s home or acting by force shows an interest in the property that is an interest of the bloated self. The Source of our wealth and property is God, not really us. We are stewards. We do possess and have advantage in our possessions. But we serve God through using what we own, in part, to help others as God expects. Our acting as sovereign doesn’t fit the picture in which God is the only sovereign.

4. (3 Readings)

Deuteronomy 24: 10-13  10 When you make any kind of loan to your neighbor, you are not to enter his house to take his collateral. 11 You must stand outside, and the borrower will bring the collateral outside to you.  12 If he is poor, you are not to go to bed with what he gave as collateral in your possession;  13 rather, you must restore the pledged item at sunset; then he will go to sleep wearing his garment and bless you. This will be an upright deed of yours before the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 24:6   No one may take a mill or even an upper millstone as collateral for a loan, because that would be taking as collateral the debtor’s very means of sustenance.

Deuteronomy 24:17  17 You are not to deprive the foreigner or the orphan of the justice which is his due, and you are not to take a widow’s clothing as collateral for a loan.

Q1. When we do make loans, what limits are placed on the lender? Why? 

The first of these suggests that if you take clothing as collateral, you must return it at night lest he not be in need of the warmth of the clothing. The second presents the image of taking collateral that would destroy the borrower's very means of sustaining life as the absence of the millstone would make it extremely difficult to mill grain into bread for his family.

And in the case of Deuteronomy 24:17, essentially, the sages say, whether rich or poor, the widow has suffered such a loss and is so vulnerable that she  merits special protection in the form of not being required to give a pledge at all. This certainly invites the thought - though we won’t explore it today - that others in such a condition might merit similar leniency.


We wrap up our general discussion today of guidance regarding our relationship with others with this specific matter of lending to others. What do we take away from today’s study of lending as a coda to the broader discussion we’ve had over the past several weeks? 

It illustrates God’s interest in how we treat those in need. We are required to help one in need of a loan and do so with restraints on our control of whatever collateral we might take as security for the loan. In the case of such loans, we are constrained as to profiting from them, especially when we fail to treat the other, the borrower, with respect and fairness, at a minimum. As in all relations with others, there’s required mutuality of both parties. So, assuming any reasonable capacity to repay, the borrower bears a duty, too, a Divinely placed obligation to repay.

In sum, we vividly see the application of the principle of “love your neighbor as yourself.” We are always to consider the precise condition of the other person and act in a way that is loving and merciful and cognizant of that person’s true interests. While our discussion here has been about how we are to treat the many borrowers with different needs and circumstances we might encounter, it nicely demonstrates the broader framework we’ve been considering for the past several weeks - how we are to relate in all ways to the many others, all God’s creatures, with whom we live and with whom we share God’s world that is home to all of us.


Encounters in Commercial Settings

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