Precision Matters

...Stay away from doubt; and do not accustom yourself to tithe by estimation.
— Raban Gamliel, Ethics of the Fathers 1:16

In our transactional consumer culture, we have come to expect less and less from companies that are trying to sell us something, which seems to be just about everyone today. Online transactions can make anyone a clothing merchant or a taxi driver. We want to believe everyone is trustworthy, but it's become harder and harder. We use car mechanics, lawyers and doctors and anyone else with specialized knowledge hoping that they are straight with us about repairs, billable hours and the tests we need.

The Talmud spends pages and pages debating exacting standards with weights and measures, following the biblical dictum of Leviticus: "You shall do not wrong in judgment, in measurement of capacity. You shall have just balances, just weights..." (Leviticus 19: 35-36). Precision measuring makes for honest business, and nothing less will do. The Talmud lauds Rabbi Safra, saying that he fulfilled the verse in Psalms to "speak truth in his heart" (15:2) because he held himself accountable to what he thought but did not say during his negotiations. In the statement above, we want to make sure people are precise with their charitable giving as well.

In Deuteronomy, we read: "You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house differing measures, a large and a small. You shall have a full and just weight; you shall have a full and just measure, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord, your God, gives you" (25:13-16). Market cheats had stones of differing weight in their pockets or bags that looked the same to deceive customers. It was a repugnant practice, and we have admonitions throughout the Hebrew Bible against what must have been common practice:

  • "Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, saying, 'When will the new moon be over, to that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, to make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger.' And to cheat with dishonest scales, so as to buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals, and that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?" (Amos 8:4-6)
  • "Thus says the Lord, God, 'Enough, you princes of Israel; put away violence and destruction, and practice justice and righteousness Stop your expropriations from My people,' declares the Lord God. "'You shall have just balances, a just ephah and a just bath.'" (Ezek 45:9-10)
  • "Differing weights and differing measures, both of them are abominable to the Lord." (Prov. 20:10)
  • "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight." (Prov. 11:1)
  • "Is there yet a man in the wicked house, along with treasures of wickedness and a short measure that is cursed? Can I justify wicked scales and a bag of deceptive weights?" (Micah 6: 10-11)

The sages of the Talmud assess some of these verses for practical teachings and discuss the very minutiae of using weights accurately, like how often a measuring vessel should be cleaned to assure that residue does not add any additional weight or how to ensure that the small deposits in the scale's pan in a liquid measure be tipped appropriately in the buyer's favor since even this small amount was measured out for him. Market inspectors need to check regularly for accuracy of measures.

Most significantly, they wanted to demonstrate how important this commandment is to preserving the integrity of the land and the nation. Rabbi Levi suggests that falsifying weights and measures deserves a greater punishment than forbidden sexual relations. One reason provided is that regarding a breach with another human being, "there is repentance." When a person cheats strangers again and again, there is no way to achieve repentance because you cannot compensate or apologize to all your customers (BT Bava Batra 88b). Lastly, the Talmud states that it is worse to rob human beings than to rob God - like withholding a gift from the Temple.

The verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy stress both God and the land of Israel to demonstrate that a person may try to deceive another, but God's watchful eye is ever present. When the Israelites made their desert trek, God wanted them to know that the country they were inheriting needed to uphold a high moral standard or it would reject their residency. Precision in weights and measures is a small, everyday behavior to build a community of trust and a reputation as a place where ethics reigns. People who measure meticulously, especially when others don't, role model integrity, as we read in Proverbs 16:11: "A just balance and scales belong to the Lord; all the weights of the bag are His concern."

Shabbat Shalom

The Truth Behind Lying

I don't know about you, but I've spent a lot of the past week pondering Ben Carson's lies about his background. It's fascinating. Here is a very accomplished pediatric surgeon running for president -arguably the most public job in the world - who fudges the truth about his alleged acceptance to West Point. He was offered a scholarship even though they don't give out scholarships. He also described himself as a violent youth who attempted murder and wielded a hammer to his mother. What's this all about? If you were going to lie, as a Talmudic principle goes, you would have told a "better" lie. You wouldn't make yourself out to be worse than assumed. And if you were going to tell a lie, wouldn't you do it about an arena where fact-checking wouldn't be so easy and the lies so outlandish?

It seems I am not the only one who is intrigued by this conundrum. The New York Timesrecently carried an article - "Candidates Stick to the Script, If Not the Truth" - to show the recklessness of any number of Republican and Democratic candidates who lie about simple facts that can easily be researched. "Today," the article contended, "it seems, truth is in the eyes of the beholder - and any assertion can be elevated and amplified if yelled loudly enough."  Instead of sheepishly backing down when caught in a gotcha moment, candidates in the new normal attack media outlets and strongly deny discrepancies in stories. Oy.

I've always taken the direct and unambiguous Leviticus approach to the truth: "Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another" (19:22). Lying is an act of stealing; you are literally stealing a reputation or creating an impression that does not belong to you. You are stealing the trust of someone else. Don't do it. The truth always seemed to me to be immutable; there is no wiggle room when a commandment is presented this way. But as I've aged, I've come to understand that this black and white way to think about the truth is grey matter for many. That's why I love the quote from Psalms above. If you hate lies then chances are you will love the law that prohibits them. You will not be a rule breaker because you see clear lines where others see a blur.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely in The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves helped me understand society in a better, more nuanced, if not more depressing way. He cites a locksmith who claims that one percent of people would never steal. One percent would always steal, "And the rest will be honest as long as the conditions are right - but if they are tempted enough, they'll be dishonest too. Locks won't protect you from the thieves, who can get in your house if they really want to. They will only protect you from the mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock." Oy. Again.

Make conditions hard enough, and most of us will set goodness as our default position. But if you make wrongdoing easy enough, the temptation will get larger and may become insurmountable with time. As Ariely concludes later, "Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals." 

If we cheat to the degree that we can get away with it while still protecting our self-image, then what are we to make of the lying going on in the presidential campaign? I take a page out of the Proverbs playbook: "Arrogant lips are unsuited to a fool, how much worse are lying lips in a ruler!" (17:7) If you're not wise, then what do you have to boast about? And if you're a leader who lies, you're even worse than a fool.

"We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions," Ariely claims. "Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We're storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better." 

We will see how voters feel about liars. I know how I feel about them. Honesty should be a bi-partisan issue. God, Proverbs reminds us,  hates lying lips "but delights in those who are honest" (12:22). In the biggest campaign - namely, our lives - truth is a more compelling slogan.

Shabbat Shalom