Behar: Honest Words

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Behar, which deals with
land, servants and money- always interesting topics. Many of the laws
in Behar only apply in the land of Israel but there is one law which
clearly articulates a permanent ethic of honest business dealings:

” When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your
neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. . . . Do not wrong one
another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra/
Leviticus 25:14 & 17)

The ancient rabbis interpreted the “wronging” of each other that could
occur during buying and selling to refer to various forms of verbal
deception, including overstating an item’s worth by more than
one-sixth or asking about prices with no intention of buying [thus
deceiving the seller.] The sages also included verbal harassment,
dishonesty or manipulation in their interpretation of these verses.

The general idea here is that people have a right to make an honest
living buying and selling legitimately acquired property, but they
should not do so using tactics which would cause anger, conflict or
wasting another person’s time. We might think that one should be free
to charge whatever one likes for an item- after all, it’s a “free
market”- but there are always inequalities of information which give
one party an advantage, which the ancient rabbis direct us not to
exploit. (Just ask yourself how you feel after someone has taken
advantage of you. How could a compassionate person do that to someone

Furthermore, the phenomenon of “deception with words” is quite real in
the Internet age, wherein it’s easy to look at products in a local
store and then buy them cheaper online. I personally know of several
small business owners who have given up their specialty shops because
of this- and I’m sure I’ve done it myself. The point is not that we
shouldn’t “comparison shop,” the point is that if you <know> you’re
not going to buy something, then it’s a deceptive act to inquire about
it, because the seller thinks a sale could happen.

These are just two examples of the Torah’s ethic of honesty and
integrity as applied to all aspects of our lives; we can’t be pious in
shul and sharks in the market. I’d say it’s precisely in those areas
where it’s most tempting to cut corners that Jewish law provides the
most guidance; money flows in and out of our hands and every day we
must consider how we act in financial transactions.

On a deeper level, honesty and integrity in business come from
striving to see each person as made in the image of God, and thus
possessing rights and dignity. It’s a mitzvah to be honest in
financial matters because there’s always another human soul on the
other end of the transaction. In any exchange, a relationship is
formed, however brief, which can be one which builds bonds of trust
and community or which degrades the dignity of both parties- and
relationships, after all, are what makes us most truly human.

Shabbat Shalom,


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