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Values, Prosperity and the Talmud: Business Lessons from the Ancient Rabbis

  • By Larry Kahaner
  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1st edition (August 14, 2003) published in hardcover, paperback and kindle
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471444413
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471444411

Overview

“The first question a person is asked at judgment after death is, ‘Did you deal in good faith in your business?”

 

–The Talmud

 

Values, Prosperity, and the Talmud: Business Lessons From the Ancient Rabbis offers business advice that has endured for thousands of years. While business fads come and go, the ancient lessons of the Talmud are timeless, profound, ethical, and practical–and they’re for everyone.

 

Classics such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince are now standard reading in business schools, but the Talmud (which means ‘study’) has been overlooked, mainly because of its massive size–2.5 million words–and the mistaken belief that it is a religious, mystical, or sacred work. Written in 500, but based on oral works centuries older, the Talmud is a comprehensive manual for living that covers almost every aspect of life–medicine, childrearing, astrology, law, food, religion, business, real estate, education, marriage, philosophy, and mathematics–and has been passed down from generation to generation. It emphasizes business matters because commerce, more than any other human activity, tests our moral mettle and reveals our true character, and because business offers us some of the best opportunities to do good deeds such as giving to charity, providing employment, and building prosperity in our communities and the world. Rather than demonizing wealth and trade, the Talmud teaches us to treat commerce as a wonderful opportunity for improvement, challenging us to think of work and money outside the narrow focus of self-interest.

 

Values, Prosperity, and the Talmud is a concise guide to this proven philosophy of business. Beyond basic money-related matters, it includes the Talmud’s advice on complex issues of employer/employee relationships, partnerships, competition, and much more. Here, you will learn how to run a successful business, negotiate with style, earn the loyalty of your employees, sell products successfully, advertise effectively, and make higher profits, all within an ethical and moral framework.

 

This book highlights  the Talmud’s most important contribution to modern businesspeople: a time-tested, value-based system that happily blends our business, personal, and spiritual lives. In Values, Prosperity, and the Talmud, he shows how profit and prosperity can go hand-in-hand with honesty, kindness, and community service.

 

Practical rather than dogmatic, the Talmud’s guidance is helpful to people of any religion or no religion at all. Values, Prosperity, and the Talmud offers all of us a chance to get back to basics and do business in a way that affects positive changes in our communities–and in ourselves.

 

First Pages

 

What Can I Learn About Business from a 1,500 Year-Old Book?

 

During the height of their $10 billion empire in the mid 1980s, the Reichmann family’s Olympia & York Development, Ltd. was the largest real estate company in North America. This Jewish orthodox family, immigrants to Canada from Hungary, had built a reputation based on integrity, honesty and on-time delivery of projects, while adhering to their core values of charity and generosity.

 

When competitors discovered that Paul Reichmann and his brothers studied the Talmud daily, they also began reading it to see if they could glean some of the family’s ‘business secrets’ from this esoteric document. To their dismay, there were no hidden secrets. The Reichmann’s business acumen stemmed from the Talmud’s practical advice, moral guidance and ethical values – teachings which the family precisely followed.

 

The Talmud is one of the cornerstones of Judaism and Jewish culture, but it is not a religious work. The Babylonian Talmud (There is a shorter and somewhat different Palestinian Talmud.) contains about 2-½ million words and is composed of discussions and debate among ancient rabbis (‘rabbi’ means ‘teacher’) that cover virtually every aspect of life from medicine to child-rearing from business to building a house. Many people consider these volumes a ‘manual for life.’

 

Around the time of the Second Temple in Israel, 539 to 332 BCE (Before the Common Era) members of the Great Assembly, a group of priests and prominent citizens, began collecting and organizing all the written texts. They decided on their order as well as what works would be included in the Five Books of Moses or Torah. The Torah, usually seen in the form of parchment scrolls, contains early biblical stories with which most of us are familiar. These scholars also organized another body of text called the Prophets and writings such as Psalms, Proverbs and Chronicles. These works together comprise the Old Testament also called the Hebrew or Jewish Bible. The Jewish Bible is the foundation of the Old Testament or Christian Bible and other religious works that followed.

 

Once completed, these scholars turned their attention to organizing the centuries-old oral works, a hodgepodge of laws, opinions and stories that had grown unwieldy over the years. These mainly were Mishnah, oral commentary on the Torah and the Gemara, which is commentary on the Mishnah. (The world Gemara is sometimes used interchangeably with the Babylonian Talmud and is the Mishnah plus commentary on the Mishnah.) When these oral commentaries were finally organized and written down, they formed the Talmud.

 

Here’s how these ancient works fit together.

 

Although the Talmud is fixed in time, contemporary rabbis still answer questions based on discussions and arguments of the ancient Talmudic rabbis. The Talmud is one of the world’s earliest example of hypertext. 

 

The Talmud was designed to stimulate conversation and debate through free association and spirited arguments among sages, each setting forth his own beliefs. Ideas and discussions go off on tangents, come back and loop around themselves. There are no large sections on business or medicine, however, and specific topics are found in clusters, but more often than not scattered throughout the book. While this non-linear structure makes the Talmud  tough to grasp, it also gives it richness. Readers are forced to stop, think, ask questions and deliberate.

 

Why the Emphasis on Business?

 

While the Talmud covers a wide range of human activities, it focuses heavily on business dealings. (The Five Books of Moses itself contain 613 direct commandments and more than 100 concern business and economics.) The Talmudic sage Raba said that when a person dies, the first question he or she will be asked in heaven is “Did you deal honestly in business?” And Rabbi Ishmael stated, “One who wishes to acquire wisdom should study the way money works, for there is no greater area of Torah study than this.  It is like an ever flowing stream….”

 

Why this interest in business and, by extension, money and profit?

 

This emphasis certainly seems to solidify the bigoted image that Jews are overly concerned with money. However, that superficial view is far from the true nature of Judaism and what the Talmudic rabbis were trying to convey.

 

Here are the main reasons why the Talmudic rabbis spent a lot of time discussing business, commerce and money.

 

The Talmud stresses the importance of dealing honestly in business because transacting business, more than any other human activity, tests our moral mettle and reveals our character.

 

Working, money and commerce offer us some of the best opportunities to do good deeds such as giving charity, providing employment and building prosperity for our

communities and the world.

 

            It is through money and commerce that we reveal our human frailties, bigotry, and our ability to deal justly with others during a time in which our natural instinct is to maximize our profits no matter what the consequences. In business transactions we sometimes believe it’s acceptable to cheat, because we think ‘everyone’s doing it,’ or that big companies won’t be injured by our tiny transgressions or we’ll never see a particular person again. In the Talmud, no transaction is tiny and no transgression is trivial.

 

The Talmudic rabbis lay down specific guidelines for running businesses, handling workers, buying and selling goods, forming partnerships, making agreements, paying taxes, and even advertising products. While ethical business practices should be a reward unto themselves, the Talmud also demonstrates that operating businesses in an ethical manner is good for a company’s bottom line and the community at-large.

 

As you read through the Talmud’s business lessons, you will see overarching ethical themes emerge. These values form the basis of Talmudic thought which, of course, stem from Jewish ethical beliefs. Some of these ideas were later incorporated into religions that followed, such as Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, but most of the ideas remain uniquely Talmudic.

 

 

1 – The Golden Rule rules.

 

While the Talmudic rabbis discussed people’s relationship to God, they were often more interested in the relationship between people — how we treat each other. Here, The Golden Rule, “Love they neighbor as thyself,” is the watchword. When challenged by a heathen scoffer to teach him the Torah in its simplest form, Rabbi Hillel remarked: “Whatever is hateful unto thee, do it not to thy fellow man. This is the whole of Torah. The rest is commentary.”

2 – There is no such thing as absolute ownership.

 

We are stewards. God owns everything in the universe and we are the caretakers. This responsibility covers the earth itself, other people, animals, money, businesses — everything. We are bound to use these resources and protect them. We are not to waste any resources, natural or manmade, because they are not ours to waste.

 

3 – We are responsible for any damage that we cause.

 

The biblical phrase “an eye for an eye” does not have anything to do with punishment for knocking out someone’s eye, and it is not an endorsement of the death penalty. It means that we are responsible for everything that we do. If we break something, we are expected to fix it, replace it, pay for it or otherwise make restitution.

 

The corollary is that we are also obligated to prevent damage or destroy anything unnecessarily. This means anything done through our action or our inaction. This prohibition not only refers to ‘things’ but to intangibles such as another person’s self-esteem or reputation.

 

4 – Show compassion for those weaker than ourselves.

 

This tenet requires that we give charity to those poorer than ourselves. It also means that we should not take advantage of those less fortunate than ourselves in daily business matters. The Jewish Bible says it this way: “Don’t place a stumbling block before the blind.” This also means that you don’t sell a dangerous weapon to a mentally ill person and you don’t sell alcohol to a minor, because they’re not able to handle these items.

 

5 – We all have free will.

 

“Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.” This fundamental saying from the Talmud seems at cross purposes, but it is not. Although God knows the future, we are all responsible for making our own choices. God may have a plan, but it’s inconsequential and unimportant, in a sense, because we don’t know what it is.

 

Although we may not be able to control what others do to us, we are fully in charge of our own behavior and actions. Whether we succeed or fail is up to us. Whether we behave properly or improperly is solely our choice.

 

6 – The law of the land is the law.

 

            The Talmudic rabbis believed that society can force moral behavior upon its citizens. Everyone in the community is obligated to follow the majority’s law. This means we must pay our taxes, abide by court rulings and follow local customs pertaining to business and commerce.

 

7 – Enough is enough.

 

The Talmud stresses balance in all aspects of life. Being rich can be wonderful, but too much wealth brings its own burdens. On the extreme opposite side, poverty is one of the worst fates to befall a person. Work is vital, but working too much is bad for you. The rabbis believed that by living a balanced existence, you will enjoy a fulfilled and joyous life.

 

A Handbook for Today’s Business

 

As modern business life becomes increasingly complicated and difficult, management is turning to the classics for guidance. Sun Tzu’s Art of War has become a handbook on how to handle market competitors. Machiavelli’s The Prince, now standard reading in business schools, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity because of  its clarity and vision, despite its ruthless approach.

The Talmudic view is often not what you would expect. For example, the Talmudic rabbis view money and profit, not as a source of evil as in some religions, but as a chance to do good works, raising people’s standard of living so they can spend more time with their families, study important works and enjoy life’s pleasures. On the other hand, money faces us with some of life’s greatest challenges like overcoming greed and knowing when enough is enough.

 

The Talmud offers riches to anyone brave enough to explore its depths. A beacon for the Jews, the Talmud has survived censorship and wholesale burnings. Its adherents have been tortured and murdered for studying it. Against all odds, the Talmud and the Jews both have survived, each giving to the other.

 

The Talmud has endured because its message is vital and its wisdom is ageless.

 

This book serves as a guide to the Talmud’s business wisdom. In it you will learn how to run a successful business, negotiate with style, earn the loyalty of your employees, sell products successfully, advertise effectively and make higher profits, all within an ethical and moral framework that has endured. These centuries-old subjects are relevant today, because human nature has not changed and the fundamentals of business and commerce also remain the same. Interestingly, the Talmud was codified during a time when the ancient Hebrews lived in an agrarian economy but were moving toward becoming a merchant class.  The Talmud comes at time when these ancient people were figuring out the rules of trade and business.

 

The Talmudic rabbi’s lessons in this book start with basic yet profound ideas about money and work then move on to more complicated business issues such as employer/employee relationships, partnerships and competition.

 

In these sections you will meet people who use the Talmud’s lessons in running their companies. These people, like Malden Mills owner Aaron Feurstein who continued to pay his employees despite a devastating fire, study the Talmud and apply its teachings. Another is Victor Allou, chief executive of the successful Allou Health & Beauty Care, Inc., in Brooklyn, New York. When asked by Fortune magazine how studying the Talmud has helped his business, he responded simply: “It opens your mind and teaches you how to think.”

 

The Talmud’s Greatest Gift

 

As you start reading, you’ll begin to understand the Talmud’s most important gift to modern business people, something that we all strive for but few of us reach.

 

The Talmud offers a way to happily blend business, personal and spiritual lives — and be successful at each. It gives precise instructions on how to balance one’s need for business success with the need for a satisfying life outside of work. The Talmud accomplishes this by challenging readers to think in new and different ways about their jobs, how they view money and the purpose of commerce. The Talmud confronts students with rock-bottom questions such as ‘why do we work,?’ ‘why do businesses exist?’ and ‘how much money should we make?’ The rabbis’ answers may seem strange, they may even shock, but they will challenge you to discover your own ideas.

 

No matter what your religious beliefs, even if you have no religious convictions at all, the Talmud’s ideas will forever change the way you think about yourself, your business and your family — for the better.

 

 

 

Reviews

The Talmud, says Kahaner, is a “handbook for today’s business world”: a reminder of balance in a workaholic culture, a treatise on personal responsibility and a call to charity in a society that seems driven by greed. In this book, Kahaner mines the ancient wisdom of the Talmud for advice on how to prosper ? but to do so ethically. He begins with discussions of the “spirituality of money,” claiming that wealth can be a positive force if it is used wisely, and then argues that work is a holy act. Other chapters take up various topical issues: treating workers fairly so that they will in turn do their work more productively; being scrupulously honest in business dealings; recognizing that education is a lifelong process; and giving to charity. Kahaner draws on contemporary business examples as well as ancient wisdom to demonstrate that “doing good” and “making good” often go hand in hand. (Publishers Weekly)

 

Help is available from just about everyone. Scan Amazon.com and you can find investment and business guides that purport to tell you how to win big, according to the principles of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Napoleon, Julius Caesar and probably Br’er Rabbit. You can also invest according to Jesus Christ and, now, take business lessons from ancient rabbis. Here you get the Talmud’s take on employee-employer relationships, partnerships, negotiations and more, all with the aim of turning an ethical profit. (Barron’s)

 

A perfect gift for your spiritually-challenged CEO friend. (Jewsweek)

 

“The ancient wisdom of the Talmud is as relevant today as it was 1,500 years ago, and its advice about business–both tactical and ethical–is as applicable to our high-tech world as it was to their world of trading mules and buying olives.”

–Alan M. Dershowitz
Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law
Harvard Law School

 

“For too long we’ve separated business from religion and in so doing we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water. Can religion be both relevant and use the accumulated wealth of its wisdom to be of service to business? Yes! There is a gold mine in religion for business. Come savor some of the wonderful nuggets in this book.”

–Martin Rutte
Coauthor, Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work
President, Livelihood

 

“Gaining perspective is essential to learning. Larry Kahaner provides the reader perspective from an ancient tradition that has a surprisingly modern relevance. This well-written and cogently organized book gives the reader access to the ethical foundations of the Judeo-Christian tradition, reminding us that business ethics is not the result of Enron, but a continuing concern about society and the human condition.”

–Stuart C. Gilman
President, The Ethics Resource Center

 

“At a time of ethical crises and global uncertainty we need leaders who blend the best of business, psychology, and spirituality. Learn the lessons of values-based management from the ancient rabbis in this thoughtful, wise guidebook. Good is good, and evil is evil; the principles still apply today.”

–Bob Rosen
CEO, Healthy Companies International and bestselling author of Global Literacies

 

“An interesting and useful prescription for modern behavior–personal and corporate–from a very old and, for many, unfamiliar source. The wisdom and ethical guidance of those early rabbis is as relevant today as it was fifteen centuries ago.”

–Mike Birck
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Tellabs

 

“Pound for pound, Values, Prosperity, and the Talmud: Business Lessons from the Ancient Rabbis delivers more wisdom and practical knowledge than a decade of working experience. Every corporate board should adopt the principles of this bible into an ethics pledge to be signed by their chief executives.”

–Stephen McMenamin
Chairman, The Greenwich Roundtable

 

 

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