Friday, September 6, 2019

Boundary Stones and Unfair Competition in Jewish Law

In this week’s parasha, the Torah teaches that, “You shall not move your fellow’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess” (Deuteronomy 19:14). The initial prohibition here is against moving the boundaries of your and your neighbor’s property, in order to expand your property at your neighbor’s expense. Rashi asks what new form of theft is introduced with this verse, since the Torah has already prohibited stealing (Leviticus 19:13). He answered that moving a boundary stone causes one to violate two Biblical prohibitions, not just stealing. In fact, shifting a boundary is such a serious form of embezzlement that it warranted a separate Biblical prohibition. Rashi also notes that since the verse references “dwelling in the Land of Israel,” moving a boundary stone outside of the Land of Israel would only be a single prohibition, that of stealing.

In later years, the rabbis in the Talmud saw this prohibition, known as hasagat gevul in Hebrew, in a less literal light. They expanded its meaning and ascribed to it a broader injunction prohibiting commercial encroachment, namely unfair competition, figuratively taking of someone else’s assets. Of course, we may not ignore the importance of not impeding someone from earning a living, which is compared to murdering someone (Yevamot 8b). In an outline from King David of eleven values of life, one value was not to compete with someone else’s livelihood (Makkot 24a).

“Rav Huna said: There was a certain resident of an alleyway who set up a mill in the alleyway and earned his living grinding grain for people. Subsequently, another resident of the alleyway came and set up a mill next to his. The halachah (Jewish law) is that the first one may prevent the second resident from doing so if he wishes, as he can say to him: You are disrupting my livelihood by taking my customers” (Bava Batra 21b). However, another Rav Huna (the son of Rabbi Yehoshua) disagrees: “The resident of an alleyway cannot prevent another resident of his alleyway from practicing a particular trade there…” (Ibid.)

The latter opinion is codified in almost all halachic codes. But, before you think Judaism allows every type of competition, over the years, conditions were added. One caveat is the prohibition of introducing a similar business in a cul-de-sac where one cannot travel to the other person’s business without first seeing the new establishment. All agree that this type of competition is forbidden. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis once adjudicated a competition case between two Italian printers of Judaica. He felt that since the second printer had entered the business with the express purpose of ruining the business of the first printer, the second printer’s business should not be patronized. Chatam Sofer limited competition to impacting another’s livelihood, not eliminating it. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein expanded Chatam Sofer’s ruling by claiming that if the competitive business caused the original business owner to be forced into a below average socio-economic class, it would be forbidden.

(Interesting note: The only area where “unfair” competition is permitted, indeed encouraged, is Jewish education. It is assumed that, in this instance, the “unfair” competition would improve the overall quality of all schools.)

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

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