To Flee or to Stay? (Hakirah Single from volume 9)


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History’s Arrow

If, for instance, an outside seller, unaware of the increase in the capacity of the weights and measures, sold his wares at the fixed profit of one-sixth, he would still suffer no loss on the cost price, provided the change did not exceed one-sixth. The authorities were not content with having to provide society with mere fitting instruments of trade.


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They felt bound to regulate every sort of economic transaction in which individual self-interest might lead to injustice, and they determined to see that only such articles were sold as were of good quality as well as of good measure. Store-keepers were not allowed to give their wares a delusive appearance by displaying the best quality on top and placing the inferior below.

Nor was it permitted to renovate old furniture and sell it as new. Animals for sale were not to have their appearance improved by being brushed up or drugged so that they might appear young. When he came to Raba Papa b. Samuel, he bought him. A strong administrative system was created to assist the authorities in enforcing their regulations. There were special agents, agoranomos, market-commissioners, who supervised and tested the quality of the food, liquors and other articles offered for sale, and who controlled the measures and weights.

As to prices, custom varied. Whilst in Babylonia they were fixed and controlled by the community, 46 in Palestine they were under no such control. They were rather allowed to find their own level, stimulating thereby—thus maintained these early economists—healthy competition. Rab on his arrival in the year C. Samuel, his contemporary, on the other hand, fought against high prices; and on one occasion when dealers in earthenware took advantage of the adopted law disallowing the use of all hametz earthenware vessels that remained over the Passover, and charged exorbitant prices for their goods, Samuel threatened them that unless they reduced their prices, he would modify the law in favour of the opinion that declared the use of such utensils permissible after Passover.

This is particularly seen in the law which considers the unauthorised use of any property belonging to another to be the equivalent of robbery, rendering the offender liable as such for any loss or deterioration suffered by the property even through an unavoidable accident force majeure. Related to these regulations is the prohibition to deprive a man directly of a customer, or to buy what someone else is negotiating for. Similar protection against competition was extended even to fishermen. Although they plied their trade in rivers, in which, as common property, all men had equal fishing rights, they were protected against the interference of each other with their respective catches.

Fishermen were thus ordered to remove their nets for a certain distance from the spot where another fisherman had already spread his net, with a good chance of catching a fish which had been attracted by his bait. How little Jewish ethics were influenced from the earliest days by the idea of absolute property is already reflected in the position of the non-Jewish slave in ancient Israel.

Even a slave was not recognised as an absolute possession.

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He was never to become a thing. The smallest injury to his body gave him his freedom. If he ran away, nobody was entitled to deliver him back. Did not He that made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb? In an epoch when social conscience was yet unknown, even in those restricted parts of the world which represented a certain degree of civilisation, Jewish ethics proclaimed in no uncertain accents full equality of social standards even of slaves, embodying this principle in the various rules and regulations governing slaves and master.

It was forbidden to let slaves perform any degrading work, or work which was not absolutely necessary.

Social equality of the slave demanded that he should rest on the Sabbath day even as his master rests, and that if made captive he should be ransomed even as a freeman is. The same social conception of property governed the relations between employers and employees.

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Property did not give owners the right to hire workers on their own terms. But in any case it was a fixed regulation that the time taken up by the workman in going to the place of labour was included in the working hours belonging to the employer, whereas the time needed for the labourer to go back home from his work was part of his own time and could not be deducted from his working hours.

In their solicitude for the welfare of the workman, the Jewish communities while protecting him against exploitation, sought at the same time to safeguard his dignity and honour. For freedom was a divine gift which no Jew was entitled to barter away. Thus, the workman by hiring himself out for the day could retract before the work was completed, provided he could be replaced, and his retraction would not involve the master in a financial loss. The wages of the workmen had to be paid according to biblical law within a fixed time. XIX, The purpose of this law, which is repeated with different wording in Deuteronomy XXIV, , is evidently to spare the workman, who waits for his earnings to buy food, the distress caused by any delay in the payment of his wages.

This fact is recognised in modern business in which it has become the practice to pay employees every week, whilst casual [page vii] labour is paid by the day; and the Talmud contains detailed provision as to what are the limits of time, according to circumstances and the nature of the work, at the end of which the owner, having failed to pay his workman, is guilty of violation of the command.

If, for example, he is a day labourer, he must be paid during the night following the day of his employment; if he is a night worker, he must have his wages paid within the day following the night of his employment. But after the expiry of the time limit, he would have to bring definite evidence to prove his claim, because the presumption is raised that every employer is honest and would not defraud his workman, nor violate the command that enjoins payment within a fixed time.

The Talmud knows of no class legislation favouring one section at the expense of the other: all are alike in the eyes of the law, master as servant, employer or employee; and the interests of the masters receive as much consideration at the hands of the Talmudic legislators as those of the labourers. Furthermore, even were the workman to have engaged himself to work for the employer by mere parole, if he retracts the employer may engage other workmen even at a higher wage than the one agreed upon, and charge the difference to the employee.

Workers were thus declared exempt from the punctilious performance of certain religious exercises where this might tend to interfere with their work. They were for instance to curtail the Grace after meals, 73 and were not required on reciting the morning Shema to get down from a tree or scaffolding on which they happened to be working at the time, but could say it where they stood.

Whilst he was allowed the shavings taken off with the plane, the appropriation of chips taken off with the hatchet was forbidden to him. The conception of inviolability of personal rights which, as we have seen, governed the relations of the workers and employers, is further illustrated by the legislation designed to protect debtors against grasping and oppressive measures on the part of their creditors; and a mere comparison with the Roman system in this connection leaves no doubt as to the highly ethical principle which determined the treatment of the debtor in the Talmudic system.

In Roman law the borrower was bound hand and foot to the lender, if he failed to repay him the money lent; and where the debtor could not repay his debts, the creditor could, by applying the praetor, obtain full powers over the person of the debtor by forcing him into slavery either for his own use, or for sale in the market; and despite some later laws that mitigated the plight of the debtor, his enslavement to the creditor was in practice right down to the age of Justinian. Not only could the creditor not force his debtor into slavery but even his right of taking a pledge was restricted.

He could not deprive the debtor of any implements which he required for earning a livelihood, or of any household utensils needed for the preparation of food or his bedding, and in no case would he take in pledge anything belonging to his wife or children. On the other hand, in order not to discourage through these restrictions people from advancing loans to those in need of money, a number of adjustments in the then existing law were made in favour of creditors. Thus it was enacted that creditors in collecting their debts from landed property, could insist on being paid out of the medium quality, despite the implied Biblical law that entitled the debtor to discharge his liability by referring the creditor to the poorest quality.

These enactments, though they served to safeguard to a certain extent the interests of creditors, were felt not to go far enough. In the absence of any measures to overcome the Biblical prohibition of interest which made money lending a non-lucrative proposition, lenders were not likely to advance money with all the risks attached thereto. But that is not all.

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The law of interest had from the earliest days been extended and made to apply to ordinary trading transactions. Thus all payment of money in return for the giving of credit, all bargains in which goods were sold at a higher price, higher than the real value, in consideration for the seller having to [page viii] wait some time before he was paid, were considered usurious. For it was regarded the same as if the seller were to charge usury for lending the goods themselves, or the amount of money which was just the price of the goods, to the buyer for the period during which the seller waited for payment.

This extension of the law tended to check trading enterprises and commercial operations, no less than money lending transactions. Alive to the commercial needs of the community, the Rabbis evolved an instrument designated Iska, in virtue of which, broadly speaking, every sum involved in a loan, particularly when advanced for trading purposes, was treated half as a loan and half as a trust, on which the lender was entitled to the larger share of the profits.

In case of a bankrupt whose property was sold by order of the court, the buyer of the property had to return the bankrupt his property whenever he was in a position to buy it back again. VI, Thus anyone who made purchase in the open market of an article which turned out to be stolen was entitled, on returning the property to its rightful owner, to recover from him the money he had paid for it, and the owner would then have to sue the thief for that amount.

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This might appear to have been hard on the aggrieved owner. Yet this ordinance, included among those known as Takkanath ha-Shuk, was most necessary, if the trading wheels were to run smoothly, as otherwise people would be loth to buy things for fear the objects offered for sale were stolen.

There were also a number of rules laid down in the interests of peace.

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If several people had cisterns along a watercourse, the owner of the cistern nearest to the river which fed the watercourse had the right to dam the flow so that his cistern be filled first. The catch of beasts, birds and fish was to be treated as property held in the valid ownership of those who set the traps even before they had actually come into their possession, and for anyone else to take the catch is accounted as robbery; and to take away anything found by a deaf mute, imbecile, or a minor, although these cannot legally acquire things, is accounted as robbery.

In handling the barrels, the carriers broke one barrel, spilling the wine. Their employer, Rabbah, seized their coats in order to secure for himself the payment of the damage. The carriers thereupon summoned him before Abba Arika who ordered him to return them their coats.


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  8. Where such property was not reclaimed for some time, it fell, according to the law, to the finder.

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    To Flee or to Stay? (Hakirah Single from volume 9) To Flee or to Stay? (Hakirah Single from volume 9)
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