Is All Fair in Business?
Question: I am in the process of establishing a new business. My research has shown me that despite the existence of similar businesses I have a fair chance of succeeding if I apply my energy and talents. My only concern is that by competing with those already in the field I may be depriving them of their livelihood. Is there an obligation for me to consider limits on competition?
Answer: In our capitalistic economy we have become accustomed to the slogan that “All’s fair in war and in business”. This is certainly not the ethical approach from a Torah viewpoint. A great deal of discussion of the halachic aspects of hasagat gevul trespassing on another’s livelihood is to be found both in the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch , and one who wishes to avoid transgressing in this area should consult a competent halachic authority about what is permitted.
Just to offer a perspective of the seriousness that our Sages attached to this issue, we offer two selections from the Talmud.
When the Prophet Yechezkel praised the righteous man who avoided adultery (18:15 ) this is interpreted by our Sages (Sanhedrin 81a ) as an allegory to the ethical standard of a man who did not infringe upon another’s occupation. What a powerful message about the inviolable sanctity of a man’s livelihood!
The concern for unfair competition finds expression in the position of Rabbi Yehuda (Bava Metzia 60a ) that it is forbidden for a storekeeper to distribute sweets and nuts to children in order to draw them to him to do their family’s shopping. The only reason that this practice is permitted according to the majority view of the Sages is because the other storekeepers have the option of doing the same. This gives us at least a glimpse at the restrictions which can govern competition and which should signal to us that all is not fair in business.