A summary of Rabbi Apple‘s sermon delivered at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, on Shavu’ot, 1999.
When I came to London as a student, I began looking for Flinders Lane. In my birth place, Melbourne, that was where many Jewish businesses were situated. I was sure London would have an equivalent, and I discovered that it had several. But these days I have a different criterion: I limit the term “Jewish business” to one that is run in accordance with Torah traditions of business ethics.
Over 100 of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot address kosher business practices far more than deal with kosher food. They are concerned with correct weights and measures, not exploiting a borrower or misleading a customer, misrepresenting a product, encroaching on another’s territory or delaying a worker’s wages. The Talmud devotes several volumes to these commandments. The result? Jewish traders took commercial morality across the Mediterranean to Europe and beyond. In many lands, Jewish commercial activity was admired for its integrity. Even in distant Australia in the 19th century, there was the saying, “As honest as a Goulburn Jew”.
Thinking of God means not placing a stumbling block before the blind i.e. protecting an inexpert person from making the wrong purchase (Lev. 19); not cursing the deaf i.e. not maligning a rival’s reputation behind their back (Lev. 19); not encroaching on another’s territory (Deut. 27) or causing a Chillul HaShem bringing Judaism into disrepute (Lev. 22). The sages added further ethical principles such as lifnim mishurat hadin asking not only, “Is it legal?” but “Is it moral?”
This is all very beautiful, but I will be told that business is not a nursery school but a cut throat world of harsh realities. But the fact is that being Jewish requires you to think of utopian principles, not merely of momentary expediency. The Talmud says that the first question asked when you seek admittance into the World to Come will not be, “Did you lay tefillin every morning?” but “Were your business dealings honourable?” (Shabbat 31a). Certain things concentrate the mind wonderfully, and this should be one of them.
A Jewish business, to borrow Leo Baeck’s description of the Jewish merchant, has “extended everyday ethics into the field of commercial relations (and) guarded trading against lack of reverence”. A Jewish business consciously chooses to be based on Jewish principles.
An analogy: the leading store in Ballarat for many years was Stone’s, which everybody knew was closed on Saturday. Its proprietor made a statement, “This is the kind of business I run”, and the public said, “We respect Stone’s because they have principles”. Any Jewish business that operates on ethical principles makes a similar statement, “This is the kind of business we run”, and if others do not always applaud this stand of principle, the directors and staff have self-respect and can live with their conscience and one day face scrutiny on the threshhold of the World to Come.