Principles From the Parsha: Justice, the Jewish Way

Written by Joshua Z. Rokach on . Posted in Torah

In this week’s parsha, Shoftim, we find the ringing command that reverberates through the ages: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The admonition carries a special meaning for us as Jews. Indeed, the verse repeats the word “justice” twice for emphasis. Moreover, we see from the laws of weights and measures in next week’s parsha how scrupulously we must pursue justice.

In Leviticus (19:35) Moshe taught, “Do not perpetrate an iniquity in adjudication, [surveyor] measurements, weights and [volumetric] measures.” Our rabbis derive from this that the Torah equates weighing and measuring with dispensing justice. The text in Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 25:13-15) adds, “You shall not [carry] a weight and a weight, small and large; you shall not [keep] in your house a measure and a measure, small and large” (Deuteronomy 25:13-14). Instead, “Complete and [true] weights shall you [keep], complete and [true] measures shall you [keep]” (Deuteronomy 25:15).

Both Sefer Hachinuch and the commentary Minchat Chinuch note that the verse in Leviticus and the passages in Deuteronomy express distinct prohibitions. Leviticus forbids Jews from using false weights and measures; Ki Teitzei forbids Jews from keeping false weights and measures. In legal terms, Leviticus forbids engaging in fraudulent transactions. Deuteronomy adds prophylactic bans against possession of the instruments of fraud.

Strikingly, in one respect keeping false weights and measures constitutes a sin more serious than keeping idols, a violation of the Ten Commandments.

In most instances, the Torah requires a person to engage in an act before imposing criminal liability. When it comes to idolatry, however, our rabbis teach that a person violates the law when he erects false gods with the intention to worship them in the future.

When it comes to weights and measures, the Torah does not even require the intent to defraud for the presence of false weights and measures to be a problem. Sefer Hachinuch explains, “We are prevented from harboring short-weights and short-measures in our homes even though [we] do not transact [fraudulently] with them, lest they become a trap for us” (Mitzvah 602). Keeping false weights and measures incentivizes fraud to such a degree that the Torah must prohibit a person from even possessing them. The Torah ensures honesty in business by taking away the smallest possibility of temptation.

We can say also that guarding against suspicion motivates the strict prohibitions. Minchat Chinuch discusses whether a person may own scales and measuring instruments in a form he would need to rework to turn into usable weights and measures. In a contemporary example, may a person keep furniture or art created from weights? It is permitted, according to Minchat Chinuch; in effect, the need to repurpose art and furniture into weights and measures extinguishes the temptation to defraud.

Chosen Mishpat, in contrast, prohibits furniture and sculpture made of repurposed weights and measures. The exception is if a locality requires special markings on weights and measures; if the items in question lack those markings, no one would use them in commerce (Choshen Mishpat chapter 231, paragraph 3). Keeping valid weights and measures in any form arouses suspicion, but harboring invalid instruments does not.

The different cost-benefit calculation involved in false weights and measures requires stricter regulation than keeping other forbidden possessions in our homes. The Talmud prohibited unsafe equipment or dangerous animals in the home, and a reasonable homeowner understands that he could injure himself in a fall off a rickety ladder or if an untrained dog bites him. He has a rational incentive to comply, and the rules protect both him and unsuspecting visitors.

One who uses false weights and measures, however, does not hurt himself. He harms others by fooling customers and benefits himself through the higher profits he earns from shortchanging buyers. In addition, the vendor conceals his deception from the customer. The buyer can do nothing to prevent his victimization and the fraudster can get away with his crime. The temptation to use faulty weights and measures becomes especially hard to resist.

Alternatively, the difficulty in detecting the stealth involved in short-weighing and fraudulent measuring heightens a buyer’s suspicion. Just seeing a pair of unequal weighing stones on the seller’s property naturally leads customers to suspect fraud. The Torah concluded that Jews must remain aboveboard.

Either way, we can derive valuable lessons about ethical conduct and justice. When a person controls information or finds himself in sensitive circumstances, he must take special care. From a Jewish perspective, a public official should not solicit “gifts” from “friends” with business before his colleagues or subordinates, even if it is technically legal. If caught, the official under suspicion also can’t excuse himself with the explanation the gift didn’t influence any decisions.

Finally, both Sefer Hachinuch and Minchat Chinuch rule that the prohibitions apply to all Jews, everywhere and for all time. This is part of our task as G-d’s chosen people to pursue justice.

Joshua Z. Rokach

 Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YISE) in Kemp Mill, Maryland. It meets for all minyanim on Shabbat and yomim tovim in the upstairs small beit midrash in the new wing at YISE.