Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Parshas Kedoshim can be described as a journey through a myriad of different commandments and prohibitions, combining together to produce the state of kedusha (sanctity) integral to the identity of Bnai Yisrael. We are introduced (and in some cases re-introduced) to some of the most fundamental mitzvos: ranging from idolatry and Shabbos observance, to honoring parents. The concept of honest business dealings with our fellow Jew is also included in the parsha; of course important, but intuitively not quite up there with idolatry. However, Rashi offers a rationale for this commandment that demonstrates how a person’s willingness to take advantage of his fellow Jew in business reveals a serious defect in the Jew and break from Judaism. 

In warning us on how to deal in business matters with our fellow Jew, the Torah tell us (Vayikra 19:36):

“Just scales and just weights a just dry measure (ephah) and a just liquid measure (hin) you shall have for yourselves, I am Hashem, your G-d who has taken you out of the land of Egypt.”

The concept here of “just scales” refers to the overall concept of honesty in commerce. When using weights in evaluating purchases, it is quite easy to add a little bit here or there without the purchaser catching on. Nobody can deny, intuitively, that there is something wrong about this. What stands out most in this verse, though, is the connection between yetziyas mitzrayim – the Exodus – and this commandment. What does one have to do with the other?

Rashi offers two explanations:

“for this purpose. Another interpretation: I distinguished in Egypt between the firstborn and those who were not firstborn, and I am faithful to exact punishment from one who dips his weights in salt to cheat people who do not recognize [the deceit].”

Rashi's first explanation, then – “for this purpose” – teaches the very objective of the exodus of Egypt was for this specific commandment. In fact, Rashi is referencing a Midrash that elaborates this very point. In essence, according to this Midrash, God took the Jews out of Egypt based on the condition that they accept the commandments involving measurements (middos). This elevates the commandment to an entirely new sphere of importance. Are we to believe that the primary goal of the exodus was to make sure a nation of people conduct business with each other in an open and honest way? This is not to imply that it is unimportant; obviously, honesty in business dealings is imperative. However, this prohibition is not the first of the Ten Commandments – in fact, it did not even make the list, so to speak. How could Rashi (based on the Midrash) maintain that the entire Exodus hinged on adherence to this specific commandment?

The second explanation requires a little background information, as Rashi is again alluding to a Midrash. In that particular Midrash, we learn of an interesting plan concocted by many of the Egyptians upon hearing of the impending makas bechoros. It seems many men cohabitated with one woman, assuming that the status of first born would only fall upon the first child emerging from her womb. However, the status of firstborn was actually determined by the father. Therefore, even though the woman may have given birth to ten children from ten different fathers, each child still had the status of bechor. The analogy, then, would go as follows: the Egyptians thought they could “fool” God with their surreptitious method of having children, so too the Jew who adds a little to the weight to cheat the purchaser is somehow fooling God. One could argue, then, that the purpose of this mitzvah is to combat the more-common-than-we-think emotion of “getting away with it.” Much like a rebelling yet guilt-ridden child who hides his indiscretions from his parents, the person here rationalizes his actions, assuming that somehow God won’t “get him.” And yet, it could be there is a deeper message here.

Let’s tackle the first problem. It is hard to imagine that the condition for taking the Jews out of Egypt was their adherence to this specific commandment. What then, does Rashi mean? One possible answer lies not in the action of cheating per se, but what it implies about the individual and his attachment to Judaism. One of the fundamental tenets of our religion involves our understanding of our place in the universe relative to God. This is contained within the idea of yiras Hashem (fear of God), outlined by the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah. The realistic view of the self means, by definition, a redirection of one’s ego from focusing on the importance of the self to the realization that we are no more than afar v’efer, dust and ashes. The internalization of this attitude is a critical component of a person’s approach to Judaism. When this proper view of the self, relative to God, is in place, the person naturally relates to his fellow man honestly. The desire to take advantage of others, which is purely driven by a distorted sense of superiority, is absent. This could be, then, what Rashi is referring to. Taking advantage of another person surreptitiously expresses a distorted view of the self, indicating an inability to properly relate to fellow man, and indeed, God Himself. 

The second explanation looks at this issue from a different vantage point. It is interesting that the plan of the Egyptians referenced in the Midrash surrounded the final plague, that of makas bechoros. God, according to the Midrash, is telling us that the attempt to trick Him was unsuccessful. One can imagine that this last plague was not the only time this approach was employed by the Egyptians. The key here is the distinction between the last plague and the others. In general, God used the plagues as a means to demonstrate His control over the natural world. However, the last plague was unique. Whereas the other plagues were all sourced in nature, albeit with variations that could only emerge from a Divine Source, the last plague had no source within nature. To afflict a specific group of people, tied together by an accidental characteristic of being first born, at a specific time on a specific day, has no source within the natural world. It demonstrated a quality of control different than the other plagues, the revelation of God as Omniscient. Therefore, the foiling of the Egyptians’ plan served one purpose: to demonstrate this degree of control is only within God’s means. This analogy would seem to carry through to the instance of the Jew who tries to secretly rip off his fellow Jew. A person who engages in this type of behavior is ultimately revealing a deep problem, his actions question God’s Omniscience. No doubt, the childish notion of “fooling God” is a driving emotion here. At the same time, though, the philosophical implications of such a mentality ultimately reveal a question of God’s complete control. This outlook, obviously, is extremely harmful and dangerous to the individual. 

We can see now how this commandment is more than simply a guide in appropriate ethical behavior, more complex than an extension of the idea of being nice to our fellow man. Based on the above elucidations of Rashi, it would seem the violation of this principle represents a serious philosophical defect. One might ask, “what’s the harm in a few pennies to my benefit?” As we have shown, the harm is incalculable.