"And you shall not move a boundary of your fellow" Deuteronomy 19:14

By Rabbi Pinchas Hackenbroch, September 1, 2011

In this innocuous verse the Torah enshrines a fundamental law of honesty and integrity that has had a profound influence in business ethics and our outlook vis à vis the financial world.

The verse, taken at face value, prohibits a person moving the boundaries of his land, thereby usurping illegally the land of his neighbour. In ancient Israel this verse was applied to prevent members of one tribe stealthily taking the land that belonged to a neighbouring tribe. In rabbinic literature, this Torah prohibition is known as hasagat hagvul, trespassing or usurping another's land.

Rabbeinu Bachye (1263-1340) views the prohibition against infringing on the property rights of others as an attempt to defy God and His divine plan. The Almighty has designated to each and every inhabitant of the world their rightful portions, so any attempt to alter that divine plan is to be regarded as a brazen act of defiance of God.

In the Talmud we find this law has been broadly applied by the rabbis to several spheres of life. In the area of study this verse is taken to prohibit plagiarism and even the citing of another person's ideas or opinions without attribution is seen as a contravention.

In the realm of business, this verse and its extrapolation has been the central plank in the Jewish notion of fair trade and competition. Judaism approves of free trade and competition in the market place, but unfair and cut-throat competition is seen as unacceptable. The implication of this would be that one would not be permitted to establish a business in a neighbourhood that could not sustain the two businesses. Similarly, a storekeeper is not permitted to belittle or to knock a competitor's product.

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald observes although Judaism generally prohibits undue competition, there is one exception to this rule. That is in the realm of education and scholarship, since here competition in scholarship is seen to encourage a thirst for knowledge and striving for excellence.

Last updated: 10:43am, September 1 2011