Business ethics: ancient ideas, modern applications

The Jewish Internet with Mark Mietkiewicz, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

Is there a Jewish way to lay off workers? Is it kosher to declare bankruptcy?

Is it ethical to tap into your neighbors’ Wi-Fi? What if they give you permission?

Although you may not think Judaism has much to say about these things, you might be surprised. Contemporary rabbis and other thinkers have studied the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” found in the Torah, Talmud and traditional sources and have applied them to the business dilemmas of modern-day life.

Mark Mietkiewicz
Mark Mietkiewicz

But why do we need to go to sources? Can’t we just weigh each situation and wing it according to what feels Jewish?

That’s where this anecdote comes in. A shochet (ritual slaughterer) once approached Rabbi Yisroel Salanter with a dilemma.

The shochet said that he was getting older and becoming fearful of making mistakes that may cause others to eat non-kosher meat. He wished to stop slaughtering and go into business instead. Salanter asked if he was an expert in the Jewish laws of slaughtering. “Of course, Rebbe.”

Salanter then asked, “Are you an expert in the Jewish laws of business?” The student laughed, “Of course not, very few people learn those laws.” Salanter replied, “You are not making any sense. If you are prepared to stop slaughtering because of your fear of sinning, even though you are an expert in the laws, how much more so should you fear sinning in business, in which you have no expertise (”

The Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem outlines some principles which may not necessarily align with modern business practices:

• The imperative of integrity demands honesty even when it is contrary to business advantage.

• Greed, while being an important motivation for economic activity, is also a source for unethical behavior.

• Judaism recognizes that self-interest plays a major (but not sole) role in ensuring ethical standards. Love your neighbor as yourself offers the positive and negative aspects of this principle.

Unlike other traditions, Judaism has never viewed poverty as a virtue. Wealth, however, has always been seen as a challenge (

Rabbi Yizchok Breitowitz has examined whether declaring bankruptcy is a kosher choice under halachah, Jewish law. He points out that, “the Torah considers the obligation to pay debts as absolute… and there is no mechanism in halachah that is tantamount to escaping your debts by filing a bankruptcy and obtaining a discharge.”

But since we live in a secular country, are we allowed to file bankruptcy and get a discharge? Although the answer seems to be yes, the fascinating part of the article is the reasoning which the rabbi uses, and his explanation of the rights of lender and debtor in secular and Jewish societies — as well as the role of the Jewish community toward individuals who find themselves in financial distress (

Is there a Jewish way to lay off workers? An article in Forward tells the story of someone who had worked almost 25 years for a Jewish institution and was laid off two years short of retirement. Rabbi Elliot Dorff feels that “it’s just mean, frankly, to fire people at that stage.”

Dorff says that Jewish texts and tradition are filled with discussion about the importance of work — and the responsibility that employers have to employees.

When his own institution, the American Jewish University, faced cutbacks, staff elected to take salary cuts as a group rather than allowing any individuals to lose their jobs (

I came across a fascinating case heard by the Bet Din (rabbinical court) of Haifa about a school maintenance worker who was dismissed after 12 years of service. The court ordered the employer to go beyond the letter of the law to not only pay him an enhanced severance fee but also assist him to find another job “in order ‘to do that which is just and good (’”

And the Wi-Fi? What if your neighbor has unlimited access and won’t notice or doesn’t care? That’s not the point, says Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir.

“The problem with this reasoning is that the service provider charges a certain price for unlimited access based on the knowledge that the average subscriber uses a certain amount of bandwidth (amount of wireless information). It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet; a person is allowed to eat as much as he wants, but if diners were allowed to ‘piggy-back’ on a single meal then the restaurant would find it pretty hard to break even (”

Mark Mietkiewicz writes about resources for Jewish life to be found on the Internet. Contact him at

To read the complete October 2015 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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