Proper Weights and Measures

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Continuing last week’s theme, let’s see a mitzvah related to pricing markets properly, ensuring our weights and measures are accurate. I could imagine the Torah grouping all of this under one obligation to measure correctly, yet Rambam—with no argument from Ramban– has three Biblical rules on the issue, an obligation and two prohibitions.

Calibrating Our Measuring Apparatus Well

Aseh 208 records the command le-tzadek ha-peles ve-ha-moznayim, to make just—calibrate well– the leveler, scales, weights, and measures. Rambam adds u-le-haflig be-tzimtzumam, which Sefaria (done by R. Francis Nataf) translates “maximize their exactness.” Without disagreeing, I think le-haflig also tells the reader s/he must go far, put in extra effort, to secure this result. Yes, we are to maximize the item’s exactness, but I think Rambam wants us to know we must invest effort to be sure it happens. Sefer Ha-Hinuch 259 says much the same, his words “and to be very careful about them.”

The source verse, Va-Yikra 19;36, lists various measuring apparatuses, telling us each one must be tzedek, literally just or accurate, but the emphasis on which leads Sifra to say the Torah is telling us to adjust them very very well.

Measurements, Egypt, and Our Relationship with God

Rambam includes another Sifra in his summary of what he calls the command of measurements. Sifra comments on the end of the verse, where God speaks of Himself, as it were, as the One Who took them out of Egyt [a fact I noticed in As If We Were There]. God brought it up here to inform us our freedom from Egypt was conditioned on our attention to our weights and measures. Sefer Ha-Hinuch adds Baba Metzi’a 61b, Hashem says He is the One Who distinguished first-born from not in Egypt, is the One Who will punish those who bury their weights in salt (a way to mismeasure in favor of the seller).

More, one who keeps this mitzvah thereby signals faith in the Exodus, one who abandons it demonstrates lack of faith in it. Aruch Ha-Shulhan 231;19 says the lack of faith is both in thinking God does not see what we are doing as well as insisting on taking care of one’s livelihood oneself, acting as if God cannot provide without this person’s cheating [a very interesting faith issue: do cheaters think God can’t provide for them, don’t trust God will, or think God won’t give them as much as they want/need/demand? And if God chose not to, they apparently think they can find a way to get what God didn’t want them to have. Not allowed].

Setting the System to Forestall Cheating

The plethora of ways to cheat led the Torah to specify, says Sefer Ha-Hinuch, despite it all really being part of the same concern, cheating others in transactions.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch includes among the laws of the mitzvah the requirement not to use metal for weights, since they tend to rust and erode, making one side lighter than the other. Stone and glass were preferred. There were standard measuring sticks and ropes for measuring length, and part of the role of the courts was to set up an enforcement mechanism.

[Over thirty years ago, I witnessed a random check by the NYS Bureau of Measurements, in MealMart on Ave. M in Brooklyn—I think it’s still there—and they passed with flying colors, had put in extra to account for the weight of the container. Also, notice halacha’s vesting the courts with roles we commonly assign the executive and/or legislative, a lower level of separation of powers and/or checks and balances than Western-style governments today. In the original halachic state, there was more robust such separation, with a king, the courts, the Beit Ha-Mikdash system, and nevi’im].

The Prohibition of Cheating with Weights and Measures

Prohibitions 271 registers the opposition to using faulty weights and measures and then, what I find surprising, Prohibition 272 says we may not have them even if we don’t use them. I assume we would have expected the Torah to be opposed to cheating, but it is a choice to single it out as a prohibition of its own, when it could have fit into the prohibition on theft. Va-Yikra 19;35 makes it its own member of the 613.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 259 notes that Baba Metzi’a 61b included very small measurements in the prohibition, where ordinary theft has a minimum before the Biblical prohibition is violated. I think it tells us our prohibition is about the fact of misusing measurements, not about the theft involved. Theft only rises to a full Biblical violation at a perutah value; mismeasurement is a problem regardless of amount.

Along the same lines, the punishment for this graft is to repay the missing amounts, where theft incurs a fine of paying double.

Judging Is About Society, Not About Courts

Another notable element is the verse’s wording, its saying not not to commit perversion in judgment, words Sifra said were telling us the measuring of sales counts as a sort of court proceeding, cheating in this way is like a judge rendering a false verdict.

Terming weights and measures a moment of judgment sheds light on both sides of the equation. It tells us judging is about more than formal cases, it is about the decisions that foster society’s smooth running. Adjudicating disputes, catching and punishing criminals, these are all vital to society. So is being able to trust the market.

It also tells us not to think “judging” is solely for those who studied a lot. Many more of us judge than we realize (even many of us who claim we never judge), every time we sell food, clothing, land, whatever needs measuring of any sort. To misuse the process hurts society more than just the one transaction, a reason Sefer Ha-Hinuch 258 says such a person is me-shukatz, herem ve-to’evah, terms of stronger disapproval than we use for stealing, and foments the same types of tragedies that corrupt judges do.

An Abomination

The end of the verse declares all “these” to’avat Hashem, an abomination to God. This is a word unfortunately politicized in our times, because the Torah uses it regarding arayot, sexual immorality, and those who wish to soft-pedal or justify such sins first fight against accepting the implications of the word.

Aruch Ha-Shulhan Hoshen Mishpat 231;1 did not live in such a time, so for him the idea that arayot were to’evah was obvious. He points out the Torah’s use of the word here comes to tell us our seemingly minor act (it’s “only” money, and “only” small amounts at a time) is equally a to’evah, like arayot.

Your Geometry Class Might Be Useful

Rambam points out a perhaps overlooked corollary of the obligation: the necessity of training in math-related subjects, for those who are going to sell land, since measurement of land is notoriously difficult. Sefer Ha-Hinuch gives practical examples, not to measure with the same stick in winter and summer, because it contracts in summer. For the need for geometry and for choices about standards in measuring hills and valleys, Sefer Ha-Hinuch highlights the difficult math of relating circles to squares, with Talmudic examples. [Benoit Mandelbroit made a significant advance in his thinking about fractals, an early part of chaos theory, in a paper called “How Long Is the Coast of Britain?]

Torah U-Madda fans, take heart: here is one place Rambam makes clear knowledge beyond directly Torah is needed to fulfill the Torah, in contrast to most people, who just measure land however they are used to.

Rambam and Sefer Ha-Hinuch both stress the prohibition applies equally to transactions with non-Jews, because the Torah tells us not to commit injustice in our measurements, regardless of with whom we are dealing.

Don’t Even Think of Parking Here

The next prohibition takes matters a large step further, warns us against having faulty weights and measures, even if we have no intention of using them, nor in fact use them. The verse Rambam quotes, Devarim 25;13, says not to have tools of mismeasurement in our pockets. I could have imagined taking it to add a preliminary prohibition to using those weights or stones, making it prohibited to even buy or make the vehicle of sin.

Baba Batra 89b says otherwise, forbids retaining it in one’s house, even for use as a chamber pot. [Think of a longtime storeowner who wants to keep his/her first scales as a memento, like the ones who hang their first dollars on the wall, with no intent to use it. It seems to be a problem.] Aruch Ha-Shulhan Hoshen Mishpat 231;2 does give one way out, says this prohibition does not apply if local ordinances only allow measuring with registered and certified scales. As long as no one ever uses obsolete scales, a Jew could keep them for whatever other purposes.

As an extension, Aruch Ha-Shulhan 231;4 tells us Hazal required weights and measures be visually distinguishable. The modern measuring utensils, for 1/4/, 1/3, and ½ a cup would not fly, because it is too easy to substitute one for the other. He adds that other tools used in the process of selling, such as the flattener to sell only the full cup and not more, cannot have heavier and lighter sides, because it is again too easy to mislead. For liquids, the seller must wait until the foam dissipates before claiming to have filled the holder.

For the final point I will share here, Aruch Ha-Shulhan 231;7 speaks of how often a vendor must clean out his measuring cups, etc. A wholesaler has one standard, a storekeeper another, a homeowner who occasionally sells or lends to others yet another. The specifics are less vital here, because each time and place has its own standards, but the point is worth making.

Hard to Go Back

A point Sefer Ha-Hinuch makes, from Baba Batra 98b: besides the inherent problems we have seen in violating these obligations and prohibitions, the betrayal of the pact made with us when we left Egypt, the implicit denial of God in the sin, etc., render repentance from this sin also more arduous and less certain than most, because the vendor who uses these false scales will not have good records of who was cheated, certainly not of how much. Regret will come one day, we hope, but rectification will not be easy.

Three mitzvot in the Torah to remind us, in an area where temptation appears very regularly, to be aware of God’s Providence, to know God took us out of Egypt on the condition we conduct our sales honestly, and to remember God is the only true source of livelihood. Cheating, even a little bit, hurts us and hurts society, and takes us down a road from which it is hard to come back, even once we honestly recognize what we did wrong and regret our ways.

About Gidon Rothstein

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