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The Jewish Ethicist: Malicious Merchant

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Should I withhold my business from an unsavory merchant?

Q. A merchant in our area is known for his support of unsavory causes. Is it proper to prefer other establishments?

A: The main reason for choosing a particular merchant is generally the quality and price of his merchandise, and it is certainly valid for you to make these considerations uppermost. But market relationships are also human relationships, and it is neither realistic nor desirable that the "cash nexus" should be the only bond between buyer and seller.

We can learn this from a verse in the Torah. "When you sell something to your fellow, or buy from your fellow, don't oppress each man his brother" (Lev. 25:14). This verse primarily comes to prohibit unfairly overcharging the customer, but the Torah uses a surprising term: the word used is not stealing but "oppressing." The emphasis is on the human, rather than the economic, aspect of dishonesty.

This commandment is particularly germane to our question, because Rashi's commentary notes that the verse also bears an additional, implicit message: When you sell, you should sell to your fellow; when you buy, you should buy from your fellow. Preference should be given to those who share our values.

We can discern two reasons for this preference: One is a desire to help members of our own community by aiding their livelihood. While it is a mitzvah to give need to any needy person, Jewish tradition emphasizes that we should give precedence to those close to us: family members have precedence our neighbors, neighbors over distant individuals, and so on. In this way closely-knit support groups are encouraged.

Adopting this approach, the eminent authority Rabbi Moshe Isserles writes that this preference is an instance of the commandment to provide a livelihood for our fellows, an obligation learned from the verse "And your brother shall live with you" (Lev. 25:36).

Another reason is that since economic relationships are also human relationships, they inevitably have an important impact on our character. If we do business with someone who has courage and integrity, this will solidify these characteristics in us; if we do business with someone of questionable character it tends to have a demoralizing effect on us.

In a similar vein, Maimonides writes: "It is a great mitzvah to cleave to sages and their students in order to learn from their ways," and one of the examples he gives is to do business with them. (2)

Therefore, there is definitely an advantage to rewarding integrity in others, and cultivating it in our selves, by preferring to do business with individuals of good character.

Yet paradoxically, this very same principle -- the human dimension of market transactions -- implies that we shouldn't take this attitude too far. We should not strive for a state where we censor our business contacts and limit them only to a closed clique. The reason is that the very anonymity of the "cash nexus" makes it a superb bridge to create a human connection between alienated individuals. As we have written before, one of the wonderful things about business is that it channels our materialistic desires to consume or to make profits into a motivation to create living human connections with others.

So if the merchant in question is really a person of bad character, then it is certainly preferable to give your business to a competitor who will be a more worthy beneficiary of profits as well as a positive example for you. But if he is merely someone with somewhat alien opinions and characteristics, we need to balance this factor with an opposite consideration: the desire to exploit commercial interest to build constructive bridges between people of diverse backgrounds.

[For some criteria for distinguishing between someone corrupt and someone different, see: Discriminating Against Discrimination]

(1) Responsa Rema 10.
(2) Mishne Torah Deot 6:2.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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