Parashat Ki Teitzei: The significance of a little deceit

Small deceits lead to the destruction of a society even more than crime gangs, since the deceitful seller cheating his customers does not see himself as a criminal or a thief.

 The Torah strives for a society with mutual trust, people who can have faith in one another (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Torah strives for a society with mutual trust, people who can have faith in one another
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, is part of Moses’s central speech in Deuteronomy. In this parasha, we read a long list of commandments that include the proper way to treat the other nations residing alongside the Jewish nation in ancient times, laws pertaining to the Israeli justice system, laws dealing with interpersonal relationships within the family and social laws meant to prevent injustice and help the weaker layers of society. 

Let’s look at one of the laws from this last category and examine its meaning:

“You shall not keep in your pouch two different weights, one large and one small. You shall not keep in your house two different ephah measures, one large and one small. [Rather,] you shall have a full and honest weight, [and] a full and honest ephah measure, in order that your days will be prolonged on the land which the Lord, your God, gives you. For whoever does these things, whoever perpetrates such injustice, is an abomination to the Lord, your God.”

Deuteronomy 25:13-16

“You shall not keep in your pouch two different weights, one large and one small. You shall not keep in your house two different ephah measures, one large and one small. [Rather,] you shall have a full and honest weight, [and] a full and honest ephah measure, in order that your days will be prolonged on the land which the Lord, your God, gives you. For whoever does these things, whoever perpetrates such injustice, is an abomination to the Lord, your God” (Deuteronomy 25:13-16).

This law is discussing a person who sells merchandise, usually various food items. Many of us still remember the scale that was used to weigh goods with a metal weight. In ancient times, that weight was made of stone and was cut to an exact weight. (Stones like these were found in excavations adjacent to the Western Wall.) Those of us who are older might even remember buying things like flour or sugar in a precise measuring container for grain called an ephah.

This system allowed the seller to make a bit more money from the customer. If he cut the stone weight a bit or created a slightly smaller utensil for the grain, the customer would not have noticed the tiny deceit, and the cumulative profit for the seller could be significant. This is, of course, stealing. Even though each customer would be losing a minuscule amount, that doesn’t negate the severity of the act. It could be that such a tiny theft is even more severe than stealing a large sum. 

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

The Torah emphasizes the severity of this act in several ways.

First, it not only forbids the use of a defective weight, but it forbids even having one at home. This is one of the only items that the Torah forbids to have in the home! Second, the promise to someone who avoids this tiny theft seems out of proportion: “that your days will be prolonged on the land which the Lord, your God, gives you.” Lastly, the theft is described in very strong language: “such injustice is an abomination to the Lord, your God.” 

What is the significance of this minuscule theft?

No customer would go bankrupt as a result of such use of a defective weight. The damage is minute, almost imperceptible.

The abomination in this act is the breach of trust caused by the seller’s deceit. The Torah strives for a society with mutual trust, people who can have faith in one another, who can live peacefully without the concern they will be taken advantage of if they are not alert. 

That seller, who secretly changes the weights to cheat his customers, damages that sense of trust. That small change to the ephah utensil leads to a huge lack of mutual confidence.

Small deceits lead to the destruction of a society even more than crime gangs, since the deceitful seller cheating his customers does not see himself as a criminal or a thief. Nasty habits like these would not land anyone in jail, but they do make society less trustworthy, less confident and more suspicious.  ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and other holy sites.