Honesty In Money Matters
Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )
"Do not be afraid of any man because the judgment is to God." (1) The Torah instructs judges that they should not be intimidated by powerful people when they are deciding a Din Torah (court case) the reason being that 'the judgment is to God - what does this mean?
Rashi explains that when a person unjustly takes money from his fellow there is an injustice that needs to be fixed. Therefore God must direct the Divine Providence in such a way that the money will be returned to its true owner. In this way the judgment has been 'placed' in God's hands, forcing Him to correct the injustice done. Why is this so serious? God deliberately limits Himself from too much obvious intervention in our lives so as not to interfere with our free will. If His presence was so obvious it would be much more difficult to sin and the balance of free will would be affected. By causing God to intervene to reimburse the victim of an injustice a person is indeed affecting this delicate balance.
There is another interesting point that we can learn out from this Rashi: When a person sins in monetary matters he is not only transgressing in the realm of Bein Adam LeChaveiro (interpersonal relationships) but also in that of Bein Adam LeMakom (between man and God). This point is of significance because there seems to be a tendency to approach Bein Adam LeMakom mitzvot with a different attitude from Bein Adam Lechaveiro mitzvot: When an observant Jew is offered a plate of food he would and should normally inquire as to the hechscher (kosher standard) of the food before he eats it. If he is unclear as to the standards of the hechsher he will ask a competent Rabbinic authority as to whether he can eat this food or not. In contrast, it is quite common that when a person is faced with a question as to paying taxes, for example, he is more likely to proceed without looking into the legal validity of his actions. Perhaps the realization that monetary issues also involve Bein Adam LeMakom can motivate a person to be more careful in them.
The Gemara supports the idea that monetary matters is an area of natural human weakness; "Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav says, most people sin in the area of stealing." (2) This Gemara seems hard to understand - do most Jews go around stealing from others?! The Rashbam explains that the Gemara is not referring to outright stealing such as pick-pocketing or shoplifting. Rather it is referring to much more subtle and insidious forms of stealing in which people justify that what they are doing is permissible. The Gemara may also include forms of 'thievery' that come as a result of sheer carelessness. For the remainder of this article we will discuss some of those areas of Jewish law in monetary matters that are often neglected and observe how great Torah scholars conducted themselves in these areas.
A classic example of carelessness is not returning borrowed items. It seems to be an all-too-common occurrence that people lend items out and never see them again! Unless the lender intends to forgive failure to return the item, this constitutes a form of stealing. Of course people do not purposely intend to steal, but such negligence surely stems from a lack of respect for other people's property. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky was a living example of how to act in this area. On one occasion he was filling in a ketubah (marriage document) and used the groom's pen and forgot to return it to him amidst the hectic nature of the wedding. TWO YEARS later he met again with the pen owner and handed him the pen.(3)
Another area in which there is a great yetzer hara (negative inclination) to justify questionable behavior is using other people's items without express permission. There are many instances in which it is forbidden to assume that the owner will allow someone to use his item without asking first. The ease at which a person can stumble in this area is demonstrated in the following story. Rav Leib Chassid was the famous tzaddik of Kelm. In his later years he went out for a walk on the road between Kelm and Tavrig. One day a teenage boy driving a wagon passed by and offered him a ride. Reb Leib asked him if the wagon was his, and the by replied that it belonged to his father. "Did he give you permission to take passengers?" Reb Leib asked. The boy admitted that he had never discussed it with his father, adding, "Do I really need his permission for that?" "Yes", said Reb Leib, "since you have not asked permission you would be a thief if you took any passengers into the wagon." (4) It is such sensitivity that is required in order to avoid erring in these laws.
Avoiding paying taxes to non-Jewish governments is something which one can easily find justification for, however, this is often a violation of Dina d'Malchuta dina.(5) A woman once asked Rav Kamenetsky why her family should not lie about their income in order to obtain food stamps when there was widespread cheating among other ethnic and racial groups to establish eligibility. "Simple" said Reb Yaakov, "they did not stand at Mount Sinai, you did." This answer is the first and most important step in beginning to be more careful in monetary matters. A person can find numerous reasons to justify various actions in these areas but he must remember that ultimately everything a Jew does should be based on what God taught us on Mount Sinai. Rav Yisroel Reisman shlit"a an entire talk to conveying the message that whenever one is faced with an opportunity to make or save money he must first and foremost look to the words of Shulchan Aruch(6) to determine whether or not this form of behavior is allowed.(7) This often means asking a question and not presuming that it is okay to cheat the taxes or go back on a monetary agreement.
A second step to avoid straying in the laws related to money is to be aware of the tremendous yetzer hara of love of money. The Gemara in Chagiga states that stealing is something that people have great desire for.(8) Because of this great desire one must be extra careful and place fences that protect him from faltering. We learn just how far one must go to do this from the great Rav Yisroel Salanter. He once visited a wealthy man and was alone with him in a room. The man was called out for a few minutes but when he returned he was shocked to see that Rav Yisroel was not in the room. He looked everywhere for him and, to his great surprise was Rav Yisroel standing outside the house. Rav Yisroel explained that the Gemara teaches us that a minority of people sin in arayot (areas of immorality) whilst a majority sin in the realm of stealing: (9) We know that it is forbidden to be alone in a room with a person that is forbidden to us lest our yester hara overcome us. If the yetzer hara for is stronger than that for immorality then we must learn out a kal v'chomer (a fortiori argument) that it is forbidden to be alone with someone else's' uncounted money!(10) Rav Yisroel was of course the last person that one would expect would stumble in the area of stealing, yet he made fences to protect him from its snares, surely we should emulate him.
We currently find ourselves in the nine days - a time of intense mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the hester panim (God's Presence being hidden) that accompanies it. Rav Mattisyahu Salomon suggests that carelessness in the monetary laws is a direct cause of hester panim: The Torah commands us to use accurate and honest weights and measures.(11) Directly following this comes the section about Amalek?(12) What is the connection between these seemingly disparate matters? The Netziv explains that cheating in business undermines the basic tenets of Emuna (faith) and Bitachon (trust). One who trusts that God will provide for his livelihood will have no desire to break the Torah laws in order to acquire money. However, a person who is willing to cheat and justify questionable actions in order to support himself demonstrates that he is not living with a belief that God is looking over him. Measure for measure, God says, 'if you are acting as if I am not around then I will no longer be in your midst and protect you.' Without heavenly protection we are open prey to our enemies.
Thus we have seen how negligence in the monetary laws is not just a transgression of our relationships with others, but also shows a severe lacking in one's relationship with God - one who feels the need to 'bend the rules' in order to gain or save money is ignoring the basic tenets of trust in God. It is essential that we learn from the great Torah scholars and try to be more careful in at least one of the areas discussed here - whether it be, being more careful in returning borrowed items or not using other people's items without permission, or being honest in business. But the most important lesson is to acknowledge that every area of our lives is decided by Shulchan Aruch and we must always verify that our actions accord with its instructions.
What is the reward for being careful in monetary matters? The Yerushalmi in Makkos states that since the yetzer hara to steal is so great, the reward to overcome this desire is proportionally great. "One who separates from [stealing] he and his descendants will benefit for every generation till the end of days." (13) May we all merit to end the hester panim and bring God's presence back into our lives.
1. Devarim, 1:17.
2. Bava Basra 165a.
3. Rosenblum, Reb Yaakov, p.343.
4. Ibid, p. 342.
5. Dina d'Malchuta Dina is the halachic requirement that Jews follow the laws of the land in which we live as long as they are not anti-Semitic.
6. This is the standard work of Jewish law written by Rav Yosef Karo in the 15th Century.
7. Yirimiyahu 17:11, 'Choshen Mishpat Stories', March 26, 2005.
8. Chagiga 11b.
9. Bava Basra, ibid.
10. Heard from Rav Yisroel Reisman shlit"a.
11. Devarim 25, 13-16.
12. Devarim 25, 17-19.
13. Yerushalmi, Makkos, 2:12, 9b.