Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh
Doing Business with a Fellow Jew
Last week we discussed the mandate to strive to do business with a Torah scholar, which the Rambam states is a fulfillment of the Torah commandment to cleave to talmidei chachamim. There is also a mitzva based on a Torah verse to give preference to a Jew over a non-Jew. Let us examine the lessons of this commandment.
In the passage relating to Yovel (in this week’s sedra!) we read: "And when you sell to your fellow or buy from the hand of your fellow, don't oppress each one his brother" (Vayikra 25:14). This verse comes to prohibit overcharging in the sale of moveable items (as learned from the word "from the hand" - merchandise which goes from hand to hand.)
However, Rashi, based on the midrash halacha, adds an additional element: "Where do we learn that when you sell, you should sell to your fellow Israel? We learn 'And when you sell - to your fellow'. And where do we learn that if you come to buy you should buy from your fellow Israel? We learn, 'or buy - from the hand of your fellow'. In other words, a person should strive to give preference to doing business with another Jew, though there are various opinions in the halachic works exactly how much sacrifice is required to fulfill this mandate.
Last week we brought strong evidence that the preference for doing business with a Torah scholar involves two distinct elements: one is the desire to benefit the Torah scholar by helping his livelihood; the other is the desire to benefit ourselves by making edifying business associations with talmidei chachamim. Let us see if we can find both of these strains also in the mandate to do preference with a Jew.
There is certainly reason to believe that livelihood considerations are important in this mitzva. We know that the highest level of charity is to do business with someone, in order to help them in a constructive and non-humiliating fash- ion (SA YD 249:6). And the Rema in a responsum writes explicitly that this mitzva is part of the mandate to provide a livelihood for our fellow Jews (Responsa Rema 10).
The mitzva to sell to a Jew can also be understood in this light. After all, some- times items are in short supply and it is material help to have preference from a seller; in addition the mishna in Nedarim tells us that there is always some benefit to the buyer as well as to the seller (Nedarim 42b).
Still, there are also good reasons to consider that the human element is also present in this mitzva. One is the mitzva to sell to a Jew, and not just to buy from one. Despite what we have just said, in general a purchaser doesn't lack for willing sellers and he doesn't really need any favors from them.
More importantly, the very language of this mitzva points to a human element. As we pointed out in a previous column, the Torah's word for overcharging is "onaah", which literally means "distressing". The main meaning is to cause anguish to someone, as in the verse almost immediately following (Vayikra 25:17) which forbids "onaat devarim", causing anguish by cruel or careless words (see Rashi's commentary), which is a twin of "onaat mamon", which presumably means causing anguish by cruel or careless business conduct.
Furthermore, we know that there are many commandments whose stated objective is to encourage association specifically with our fellow countrymen. Prominent among these is the prohibition on food cooked solely by a non-Jew.
It seems then that we can discern two distinct strains in the preference we give to doing business with other Jews. One is to help them with their livelihood; yet another dimension of the law seems to be to encourage association with other Jews.
There is an important practical distinction between the two understandings. What if we have to choose between a Jewish merchant who carries mostly non-Jewish merchandise and a non- Jewish merchant who sells Jewish merchandise? If livelihood is the only consideration, then we might well give preference to the non-Jewish merchant assuming that the bulk of the markup goes to the producers. But if association is equally important, then this might tip the scales in favor of a Jewish merchant, especially since this also helps his livelihood.
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Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own Qs — www.jewishethicist.com or www.aish.com.