Bava Batra 88: Watch your Weight

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

All too often, we equate being a religious Jew with the observance of Shabbat, kashrut and taharat hamishpacha. Without at all minimizing these crucial identifying markers of religious observance, unless they are coupled with basic morality—honesty in one’s business dealings, avoiding unnecessary dissension, and basic  menschlichkeit—they are not only of little import, but their observance may actually be the cause of the desecration of G-d’s name.  

As we have often noted, the Gemara makes it rather clear that it would be better if those “whose business dealings are not conducted faithfully, and do not speak pleasantly with other people” were not to show outward signs of religiosity. By pretending to be religious they cause people to say, “This one who studied Torah, see how destructive are his actions, and how ugly are his ways” (Yoma 86a).

While the religious displays may truly be sincere and well meaning, that matters little, as the inconsistency between one’s observance of mitzvoth between man and man on the one hand, and man and G-d on the other, has the effect, our Sages note, of desecrating the name of G-d by causing others to actually hate G-d. And desecrating G-d’s name is the one sin for which atonement is possible only upon death (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 1:4). 

Our prophets were loud and clear stating that G-d is not interested in religious rituals if our ethics are wanting. That ignoring the hungry, oppressing the widow and orphan, or taking advantage of the stranger are greater sins than violating Shabbat, kashrut or taharat hamishpacha is, or should be, obvious. What is frightening is Yishayahu’s claim that, absent ethical sensitivity, G-d actually “hates” our holidays and considers them a “burden”(1:14). Our offerings to G-d are an “abomination” and will remain so as long as our “silver has turned to dross, and our wine is cut with water” (1:22), or the “masses love bribery” and “run after gifts” (1:23). 

Yet so many continue to identify being a religious Jew with Shabbat, kashrut and taharat hamishpacha. After all, that is what distinguishes Jew from non-Jew and, in the modern era, “religious Jews” from “reformers”. Ethics, not being unique to Judaism, are too often seen as less important than the uniquely Jewish mitzvot. 

I often tell my students that a key definition of a religious Jew is one who is honest in business. It is much harder than keeping Shabbat, and so much more telling about our faith in G-d. It is not for naught that our Sages (Shabbat 31a) teach that the first question we will be asked when we meet our Maker will be, “Were your business dealings conducted faithfully?” And it is telling that they used the word emunah, meaning faith in G-d, to describe proper monetary practices. He who cheats demonstrates a lack of belief in the G-d “who determines our sustenance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kipour” (Beitzah 16a) as he tries to outsmart Him. He also demonstrates a lack of faith that G-d will provide for him. And if one is not provided for as one would like, faith requires one to accept that as the will of G-d. 

While we are wont to equate observance of Shabbat with belief in G-d, and desecration of Shabbat with a lack of belief, already in the mid-19th century rabbinic authorities had noted that such was no longer true. While in Talmudic and medieval times—when Jewish societies functioned within the framework of Jewish laws and belief—violation of Shabbat was a statement of denial of G-d, such is no longer true in modernity, where many attend shul, make kiddush affirming their belief in G-d, yet see no contradiction in, say, driving or even cooking on Shabbat (see, for example, the classic responsa of the Binyan Tzion #2, 23). 

Yet just as violation of Shabbat no longer equates with atheism, observance of Shabbat no longer equates with belief in G-d. Hence, the phenomenon of social Orthodoxy, where people observe mitzvoth not out of any religious belief, but because they like the lifestyle of an observant Jew.

While I could go on and on bringing such sources[1], I will discuss only one more, that relating to our Daf Yomi cycle. The Mishna (Bava Batra 88a) discusses how often one who sells merchandise must check the accuracy of their weights, measures and scales, distinguishing between a wholesaler, retailer and a homeowner who sell their wares. The issue revolves around the question of whether there is greater accuracy in scales and weights used every day, or those used only sporadically, a matter of debate because accuracy is dependent on so many factors. 

What all agree upon is that even the minutest of mistakes in weights and measures cannot be tolerated, and great effort must be made to ensure 100% accuracy[2] or as close to such as is humanly possible[3]. This should come as no surprise. In two different places the Torah exhorts us to ensure that our weights are honest. The first time is the end of chapter 19 of Vayikra, where the Torah follows the command to properly treat the stranger, with the exhortation to honesty in measurements. The penultimate verse tells us, “Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have: I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. In case one missed the juxtaposition of just weights and Egypt, Rashi notes that the Exodus occurred “for this purpose”. G-d took us out of Egypt so that we would demonstrate honesty in weights and measures. Eating matza, having a seder, getting rid of chametz are the by-products of Egypt. But the purpose of the Exodus is ethical excellence. 

The second time honest weights are mentioned is in parshat Ki-Teze: “You shall not have in your pocket two stones[for alternate weights], one larger and one smaller. A perfect and just stone [weight] you shall have…that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your G-d gives you” (Devarim 25:14-15). And for good measure, the Torah tells us that having two sets of books – I mean, two sets of stones – is a toevah, an abomination.  

This exhortation is followed by the command to battle the forces of evil as epitomized by Amalek, something our ancestors did soon after leaving Egypt. Here, too, Rashi, echoing our Sages, notes that the juxtaposition of honest weights and Amalek is meant as a warning that “due to the sin of dishonest weights, Amalek comes.” If we were taken out of Egypt so that we would demonstrate the utmost of integrity, then it stands to reason that failure to do this will force us to face those who tried to stop the Exodus in its tracks.  

“Rav Levi said: The punishment for midot[4], [dishonest] measures, is more severe than the punishment for arayot, illicit relations” (Bava Batra 88b). While adultery may carry the death penalty and is a most heinous sin against G-d and man, it is a sin that impacts on relatively few people. Dishonest weights, or—to use a modern-day equivalent—misleading leading financial statements, have a much broader impact. Not knowing if one gets what one pays for tears apart the entire fabric of society. And being that there is no way to rectify the wrong, teshuva is not possible, making it more severe even than sexual immorality – and sexual immorality is quite severe. 


[1] For many, such sources are superfluous and quoting them runs the risk of turning what should be most obvious into a technical legal discussion; while sadly, for some, all the sources in the world make little difference. 

[2] To add some perspective: As is well known, one may eat non-kosher food if it constitutes less than 1/60 of the total, a degree of error that halacha does not allow regarding dishonest weights. Furthermore, such a stricture applies only when dealing with non-kosher liquids. Regarding solids, if one has before him two pieces of kosher meat and one of non-kosher meat, but does not know which is which, the medieval authorities debate as to whether one may eat two of the three pieces, or can in fact eat all three – provided they are not eaten at the same time. In other words, the debate is whether we can allow for a 100% chance of eating non-kosher food, or limit such a possibility to 66.67%. While it is fully permissible, I can’t imagine any “religious” Jew eating even one of these pieces today (after all, we are more religious – or perhaps only wealthier—than our ancestors). When it comes to honesty in business, however, many are all too happy to rely on leniencies – even if such leniencies may be a figment of their imaginations. 

[3] Well, maybe not 100% accuracy. The Mishna does rule that the seller should tip the scales slightly in favour of the purchaser – presumably so that should there be a mistake, it should be the buyer who benefits.

[4] It is instructive that the same word, midot, is used to refer both to our weights and measures, and to our character in general. If one wants to know the true character of a person, see how they act in the business world.