Q. What is the Jewish perspective on a business exaggerating or misrepresenting its worth both in terms of its good will and the service or product it provides?
A. There are several leading Jewish researchers and writers on business ethics such as Dr Meir Tamari and Rabbi Aaron Levine. Their work makes an important contribution to the re-shaping of business practice in the light of a series of business scandals over the past two decades or so.
Aaron Levine offers a study of the Jewish concept of g’nevat da’at – literally, “stealing one’s mind”. G’nevat da’at prohibits the creation of a false impression. An example in the Mishnah is the practice of painting or polishing old utensils in order to pass them off as new (Bava Metzia 4:12).
In modern terms, g’nevat da’at is seen in unwarranted estimates of the good will of a business by misrepresenting the quality of customer service, the superiority of the work force or the size of the client base. Whether such misrepresentation brings financial benefit is not the point: what is morally wrong is wrong regardless of whether you make money from it.
Misleading advertising is also a form of g’nevat da’at: by putting one over a potential customer one is “stealing their mind”. The subject is carefully analysed in Levine’s “Economics and Jewish Law: Halakhic Perspectives”, 1987, and “Free Enterprise and Jewish Law: Aspects of Jewish Business Ethics”, 1980.