Parashah Ponderings

When It Comes to Speech, Mind Your Business

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai / פרשת בהר־בחקתי
Torah Portion: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34 

:וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת־עֲמִיתוֹ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם
“You shall not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 25:17

This week’s Torah reading provides the basis for much of Judaism’s teachings on the ethics of business. For example, when selling property shortly before the jubilee year, when all property outside walled cities was to be returned to its original owner, the seller is directed to pro-rate the sale price of the property according to the number of years remaining until the land remits back to its original owner. In this discussion, the Torah exhorts the seller: “You shall not wrong one another.” In other words, the seller should hold himself or herself to the highest ethical ideals and refrain from cheating, misleading or harming the buyer in any way.

The phrase “You shall not wrong one another” appears twice in chapter 25, once in verse 14 and once in verse 17. The second appearance includes the words “…but fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” Modern scholars point out that the repetition serves to emphasize the importance of ethical business practices.[1] The additional words in verse 17 demonstrate that even if the seller can surely get away with an ethical violation, he or she must remember that, though no human may become aware of his ill intentions, God is all-knowing (at least, in the biblical mindset) and will ultimately bring the wrongdoer to justice.

Traditional commentators read more into the repetition of “You shall not wrong one another” than mere emphasis, however. For them, since the Torah uses its words economically, the second appearance must mean something different from the first. Thus, they explain that the first appearance deals with the business transaction itself, and the second deals with the ethics of speech.

Rashi, the medieval French commentator, writes:

By contrast to verse 14, here the phrase refers to wrongdoing one another by speech. You must not belittle anyone, nor deliberately give him advice that would work out to your benefit rather than his. Should you be tempted to say, “Who could know for sure that I deliberately intended to harm him” the verse adds: “Fear your God.” The One who knows thoughts will know. Any time the text mentions something that only the person who is thinking it could know for sure, it adds, “fear your God.”[2]

I was once on a panel for jury selection in a case involving a defendant accused of reneging on a business deal. While we didn’t learn the particulars of the case, one of the attorneys hinted at its nature when he asked us prospective jurors: “Do you consider a verbal agreement to be a binding contract? Raise your hand if ‘Yes.'” Had the biblical authors been in the room, they would have raised their hands at that moment; they believed a person’s word was sacred, that a promise became real as soon as it passed the lips. You might be able to fool people through clever use of words, but you can’t fool God.

Sadly, unscrupulous business people frequently deceive consumers with slick language. Years ago, I fell prey to verbal bait and switch tactics twice. In neither case did I see it coming. I trusted that what I was told up front was the truth. I was wrong. (“Buyer beware” is also an important Jewish value, by the way.) Interestingly, in each of these cases the salesperson was no longer working at his or her place of business six months later. Apparently, management caught on to them and meted out punishment. I wonder if they were acting as agents of the Divine in these cases or, perhaps, they beat God to the punch.

One lesson to learn from the traditional commentators is that you can’t separate out the mechanics of business from the words used to conduct business. Whether it be advertising through the media or a face-to-face sales pitch, the words used to sell a product and close a deal really do matter. One should seek to be honest in all aspects of business, from how one exchanges money and writes up a contract to how one speaks to the customer in person or through advertising.

Another lesson to learn from this discussion is that there’s more to the ethics of speech in Judaism than the prohibition against lashon hara, that is, “evil speech” such as gossip and slander, which are spoken about others. What you say to people in their presence and how you make them feel are also guided by Jewish values. This last point is illustrated beautifully by the following midrash:

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel told Tavi, his servant, “Go to the marketplace and buy some food that is good.” Tavi went to the marketplace and returned with tongue. Afterward, Rabbi Shimon said to Tavi, “Go to the marketplace and buy some food this is bad.” Tavi again went to the marketplace and returned with tongue.

“What is this?” asked Rabbi Shimon. “When I told you to buy food that is good, you bought tongue, and when I told you to buy food that is bad, you also bought tongue.”

Tavi replied, “From a tongue can come good and from a tongue can come bad. When a tongue is good, there is nothing better. But when a tongue is bad there is nothing worse.” (Vayikra Rabbah 33:1)[3]

I’ve never liked tongue, and why Rabbi Shimon would instruct his servant to purchase bad meat is beyond my comprehension. These misgivings aside, the moral of the story is clear: we can use our tongues to benefit the world, and we can use our tongues to injure the world. Whether in a shop or an office, in school or at home, may we strive to control our tongues so as not to wrong one another.

[1] Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 173.

[2] Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Leviticus, (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), p. 208.

[3] Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor, (Brooklyn, NY: Aish HaTorah Publications, 1977), pp. 326-327.

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