Jewish Philosophy

Judaism and Modernity Part 9: Business Issues
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Monday 4th August 2014

A story is told of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (founder of the ethics-focused ‘Mussar movement’ d. 1883). He was approached by a shochet, who was planning on leaving his position to move into business. He explained that he found being responsible for the kashrut of the town too much to bear. Rabbi Salanter responded that, compared to business, shechita is far easier, as the shochet is only responsible for one specific halachic area. On the other hand, life in business entails many areas of Jewish law, and so the responsibilities are far greater.

Rabbi Salanter was speaking in the early 19th century. Financial interaction today is far more complex, and so Jewish responsibility is of even greater and wider scope than ever before. Nevertheless, Dayanim involved in the study of Choshen Mishpat – the section of Jewish Law dealing with all aspects of finance and the business world - continue to apply Jewish law to the contemporary financial landscape.

One simple example is that a Jewish company is forbidden to lend with interest to Jews (ribbit). What is the status of a public company with Jewish shareholders – does this prohibition apply? Does one need to sell shares in a company that produces whisky over Pesach? What about investing in a fund that at some point may invest in companies whose practices are against Jewish law or values?

Part of the question for all the examples mentioned above involves defining the nature of a company in Jewish Law. Does it fit into the classic definition of a partnership? If so, there is no essential difference between two individuals setting up a business together and a large group of shareholders. Or is the company viewed as being its own, distinct entity, comparable in Jewish Law with hekdesh, property owned by the Temple, which was its own independent entity?

These questions show the dynamism of our legal system. No one answer fits all, so the law must always be applied to the facts of the particular case to reach a conclusion, as in every legal process.

CG Rabbi Title: