The measures of honesty
By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
SAN DIEGO — During one early visit to Israel, Judy and I entered a coffee store to buy a pound of ground coffee. We watched in amazement as the proprietor held a paper bag under a chute, opened the door, closed it, and placed our coffee on his scale: it weighed exactly a kilo! He knew the weight was correct and only used the scale to confirm it for us.
I doubt that many could duplicate this feat today. No one measures weight by hand. Almost everyone uses a digital scale.
Digital scales are modern inventions. They were preceded by mechanical scales, which in turn were preceded by balance beam scales.
When the Torah or rabbis speak of weighing something they assume the use of a balance beam scale. You put a weight of a known quantity on one side and add produce or material to the other side until the scale balances. Until governmental standardization of weights and measures was instituted, one had to rely on a store using honest weights.
Using correct weights and measures is not only a matter of honesty and fairness, it is a mitzvah – a Divine Commandment: “You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you. For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the Lord your God.” (Deut. 25:13-16)
Individuals were forbidden to even have in their possession an inaccurate weight, lest it be inadvertently used to cheat someone. If you did knowingly deceive someone, it was an offense not only against them but against God.
This mitzvah is found earlier in the Torah as well, in Leviticus: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.” (Lev. 19:35-36). An ephah is a dry measure of about one bushel. A hin is a liquid measure of about 6½ gallons.
The word hin in Aramaic also means “yes.” From this linguistic association the rabbis came up with a beautiful midrash which I read in our weekday siddur almost every morning:
Rabbi Yose ben Rabbi Y’hudah asked: “Why say: ‘You shall have … an honest ephah and an honest hin“? Is not a hin included in the measure of an ephah? [That is, the Torah is not a wordy document. You can deduce from the commandment to have an honest ephah that you should have an honest hin. Why did the Torah insist on telling us about both? Isn't the inclusion of hin superfluous?]”
He then answers his own question. The word hin in Aramaic has an additional meaning. It means: “Yes.” Therefore, the inclusion of the word hin is not superfluous, rather “This teaches you that your “yes” (hin) should be honest as well as your “no.”
Rabbi Yose extends the law of the Torah from commerce to social discourse. Honesty is demanded not only in weights and measures, but in your conversations with your neighbor. The Torah warns us against prevarication and lying. Just as we must be honest in what we do, so must we be honest in what we say.
Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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