By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
You have taken a job. Your boss is morally challenged, and is taking advantage of customers. Are you obligated to quit and find another job?
- Your store is running an advertised sale. Every item is 30 percent off. A customer has entered and is unaware of the sale. Your boss has instructed you that if a person who is not a regular customer is unaware of the sale, you are to charge them full price. What should you do?
- You work for a school. A wealthy individual buys a house and wants to register his kids in the school. Your boss lies and tells you to say to the individual that there is no room in the school, and he must pay for another classroom if he wants to register his child. You know that is a lie. Are you permitted to tell the wealthy person?
- Your boss has purchased a brand-name product and also a counterfeit product that looks almost identical. He tells you to sell the counterfeit brand to anyone who would be unable to tell the difference. Are you obligated to do so or should you refuse?
There are a number of issues at play here. First, there may be an issue of participating in theft. The Torah absolutely forbids any act of theft — even if one is merely one player in the act.
The Lifnei Iver Issue
There is also the issue of lifnei iver, placing a stumbling block before the blind, found in Vayikra (19:14). There are three forms of the prohibition of “misleading the blind.” There is
- (a) the notion of causing someone to stumble in Jewish law
- (b) the notion of giving someone bad advice
- (c) physically placing an object that is either harmful or dangerous before another person.
Most authorities hold that one who violates type a is also in violation of type b (see Igros Moshe YD I #3, Achiezer vol. III, 65:9 and 81:17). It is interesting to note that Rav Moshe Feinstein writes that violating type a is a sin between man and Hashem, not between man and his friend (IM OC IV #13).
Boss Is Doing It Willfully
You may suggest that your boss is purposefully violating halachah. He’s not “blind” — he is stealing with full knowledge! The Rambam addresses this question in his comments to the Mishnah in Shviis (5:6): “This means to say that when temptation and the evil inclination have shut the eyes of an individual, do not assist him in adding to his blindness.”
While this is true regarding willful type a violations, it is not so clear-cut regarding a willful violation under type b — giving someone bad advice. Rav Chaim Ozer Grozinsky (Achiezer ibid) rules that when the “victim” is willfully doing something against his best interests, the Rishonim hold there is no prohibition. Rav Feinstein, zt’l, agrees. The Rambam, however, rules that there is a prohibition (Hilchos Rotzayach 12:14). Generally speaking, the rule of thumb is to be stringent.
There is another issue too. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 6b) explains that the actual prohibition of lifnei iver is violated by the enabler only when the victim could not have violated the prohibition without the enabler. This is called “trei ivrah d’nahara” — two sides of the river. The classic example is of a nazir who vowed not to drink wine, and you are the only person who can hand him the wine, since it is on the other side of the river. If the wine is on the same side of the river, it may involve a different, rabbinic prohibition called mesaya lidei ovrei aveirah — assisting the hands of evildoers.
Who cares whether it is biblical or rabbinical? Well you may, for one. The reason is that the Dagul Mervavah (on the Shach in YD 151:6) holds that when the violator is willful and it is only a rabbinic violation, there is no rabbinic prohibition either. This could perhaps be a factor in whether one may continue working there.
Two Caveats Making It Biblical Again
There is a fascinating caveat to all this given both by the Chofetz Chaim (Laws of LH 9:1) and the Chazon Ish (YD 62:13). If the enabler instigated it, then it remains a Biblical prohibition!
Another caveat is known as the Mishnah Lamelech’s caveat (Hilchos Malveh uLoveh 4:2). The author, Rav Yehudah ben Shmuel Rosanes (1657–1727), chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire, writes: if the only other enablers are Jewish too, then the prohibition of lifnei iver is still violated.
Do we rule like the Dagul Mervavah that says that there is no rabbinic prohibition when the violator is willfully violating it? Rav Moshe Feinstein (IM YD I #72) rules that one can only rely upon the Dagul Mervavah in combination with another factor. The Mishnah Berurah (347:7) disagrees with the Dagul Mervavah.
Onaas Mammon Issue
We also find a concept in halachah called onaas mamon. This concept, found in chapter 227 of the Choshen Mishpat section of the Shulchan Aruch, invalidates a sale when the price is either 16.7 percent above or below the market value of the item. Landed properties would be excluded from this law, but it does apply both to movable properties as well intangibles.
Halachic authorities debate whether the law is applicable when there is a range of prices and no set market value (See Bais Yoseph, CM, 209 that says there is no onaah in such cases while the Bach and Shach state that there is). Rav Vosner, zt’l, in Shaivet HaLevi vol. V #218 concludes that there is onaah when there is no set price in the market, in accordance with the aforementioned Shach and Bach.
In regard to scenario number one, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein in Vavei HaAmudim vol. 63 #12 rules that the employee is not obligated to quit, although it may be meritorious to do so. Technically speaking, a storeowner has the right to establish any pricing system he desires to unless there is a set market price for the item.
Scenario number two has to do with lying and more. In regard to the verse in Parashas Mishpatim (Shmos 23:7) “midvar sheker tirchak” — stay away from a false matter, there is a three-way debate as to how we understand this pasuk. The Chofetz Chaim rules in his Ahavas Chesed that there is an out-and-out prohibition to lie. This is in accordance with the view of some Rishonim. Other Rishonim hold that the verse is merely good advice, but not binding halachah. A third opinion holds that the biblical prohibition is limited to the parameters of the verse under discussion and is applicable to judges adjudicating law. Generally speaking, the view of the Chofetz Chaim is normative halachah.
While some authorities will give dispensation under pressing circumstances to follow the other view, in regard to scenario number two, a lie is being used to elicit money unfairly from the wealthy parent. The line has been crossed to actual theft.
The secretary can tell the boss that she will not be party to a lie and that if the boss wishes to tell the parent this message he must do so himself. If she feels she will be fired unless she conforms, then she can word it in such a way in which she is not lying by saying, “He told me to tell you that there is no room.” She, however, may not further a lie that is used to illicitly take money from someone else.
The Shulchan Aruch rules that a gabbai tzedakah who takes tzedakah money from someone who cannot afford it and is just giving because he was guilted into doing so out of embarrassment is in violation of theft. The same would be true here, because the wealthy man is not donating to the school out of altruism but because he was cornered into doing so.
In regard to scenario number three, there really is no heter to remain in the job. It is a situation of absolute theft and one may not be party to such an activity.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.