You shall not cheat your fellow and you shall not rob… (Vayikra 19:13).
The first question a person is asked when brought before the Heavenly Court is: “Did you trade honestly in your business?” The priority given to this religious requirement over so many other commandments that people observe meticulously reveals how important honesty is to perfect service to Hashem. Yet we see that many are lax in financial dealings. Some even consider serious transgressions in this regard as mutar (permissible). “Why?” you might ask.
Harav Yehudah Segal, Rosh Yeshivah of Manchester, explains that the Gemara (Kiddushin 40a) says: “Once a person violates a commandment and then repeats his misdeed, it becomes to him as if it were permitted.” How much more true is this law of spiritual physics when one repeats a sin hundreds of times!
Once repetitive violations have transformed forbidden acts into permissible ones in the mind of the sinner, a one-time “fix” is no longer possible. In his sefer Sefat Tamim, the Chofetz Chaim says that one who wants to remedy such a spiritual malady requires “constant review of the seriousness of the sin.” Only after chipping away bit by bit can a person overcome his acquired bad habit.
People generally observe the laws that they themselves consider important. Eating kosher or Shabbat observance may come as second nature, while a lenient approach to money matters is not seen as such a terrible crime. However, the fact of the matter is, the Torah is not a menu from which one can choose one’s preferences. Rav Segal says that those who “choose” to ignore any mitzvah of the 613 are like Reform Jews who choose to keep the mitzvot they deem necessary and ignore major precepts because they don’t view them as vital to their form of “Judaism.”
The foundation of observance of the laws of honesty is to recognize and pay strict attention to the sanctity of someone else’s property. One should view another’s property as one sees the holy objects in the Beit Hamikdash. Everyone fears personal gain from holy property. If one views another’s property as sanctified merchandise, one would find it easier to avoid taking it for oneself.
There are many who are unaware of common situations that may lead to serious mistakes in dealing with others. For example, one may engage a worker without discussing compensation. At the end of the job, the employee may surprise the employer with a bill that exceeds the employer’s expectations. They then negotiate until the worker accepts a “compromise.” This situation may transgress the commandment of “Lo taashok — Do not cheat!”
The worker’s acceptance of the employer’s terms may not be wholehearted. He may accept because he desperately needs some money now or because he fears that if he holds out for his price the employer may not engage him in the future. The forced acceptance with reservations is a form of cheating. The proper course is to always establish a price before the job begins.
A story is told about the shochet who came to Harav Yisrael Salanter to tell him that he could no longer serve as the one responsible for the slaughter of the town’s meat. He was too fearful of the possibility that a small error might cause him to serve non-kosher meat to the townspeople.
The Rav replied, “What is it you plan to do to support yourself?”
The shochet said, “I plan to open a small shop.”
“Have you studied the laws of Choshen Mishpat?” asked the Rav.
“No,” the shochet answered.
“Then I would not open a store,” the Rav advised. “The potential for many more sins is so much greater in money dealings than in meat.”
Rav Salanter wanted the butcher to know that the same way he needed a “license” acknowledging his expertise in proper slaughter of kosher animals, so, too, he needed a license to do business and to deal in money matters. We, too, are forewarned. We all must improve in our financial dealings to insure that our money is truly “ours” and 100 percent kosher.