Balancing between the quest for morality and the desire for economic efficiency often requires legal intervention.
It is always interesting when hassidic writings find their way into legal treatises. Though the two realms – hassidism and law – are not necessarily divorced from one another, jurists do not ineludibly buttress their legal arguments by referencing hassidic works. One example of citing hassidic writing in a legal work is how a hassidic jurist responded to a case of depriving someone of his livelihood.
In his commentary on the Bible, Rabbi Yitzhak Eizek Yehuda Yehiel Safrin of Komarno (1806-1874) wrote that depriving someone of his livelihood is akin to murder. This understanding was based on the fact that the Hebrew phrase “ ish ahiv ” (every man’s brother) appears three times in the Bible (Genesis 9:5, Zechariah 7:10, Joel 2:8). The first occurrence refers to actual murder, and the Komarno rebbe suggested that the other two occurrences should be read in this light. Thus, thinking evil of another person in a way that may arouse harsh judgement against him is akin to murder (based upon Zechariah 7:10). So too, depriving someone of his livelihood is as heinous as murder (based upon Joel 2:8).
This reading of the text can be understood in a midrashic sense. We might say that the Komarno rebbe offers this interpretation in order to condemn undesirable conduct, such as taking away another person’s source of income.
But depriving people of their livelihood is not only a moral issue. Economic models suggest that the greatest aggregate efficiency can be achieved by allowing free-market competition. Alas, in a laissez-faire system, some people may lose their source of income as they are replaced by more efficient people. Balancing between the quest for morality and the desire for economic efficiency often requires legal intervention.
Rabbi Yisrael Nissan Kupersztok (1858-1930) was a Polish jurist who grew up with the Warka Hassidim and later identified with the Aleksander Hassidic dynasty. Rabbi Kupersztok was asked a complicated question about rights to operate a water mill that was owned by a non-Jew and leased to a Jew. The details of the legal question are not necessary for the present discussion; suf- fice it to say that two people were claiming the right to operate the mill. Rabbi Kupersztok ruled in favor of the initial operator and explained that the sec- ond operator was forbidden from encroaching on the livelihood of the first operator. The basis of this ruling was his interpretation of the legal concept called ma’arufya – the protection afforded a Jewish lessee from competition when the lessor is a non-Jew, in order to protect the income of the lessee.
Once Rabbi Kupersztok ruled on the matter of law, he added some thoughts from hassidic masters. Rabbi Yehiel Dancyger of Aleksander (1828- 1894) had ominously warned that according to tradition it was a dangerous matter to deprive a person of his livelihood. Rabbi Kupersztok then refer- enced the explanation of the Komarno rebbe that equated taking away a person’s income with murder.
Why did Rabbi Kupersztok add these hassidic references? The ruling was based on the right to ma’arufya, not on the foreboding warning of hassidic masters.
The case occurred sometime between 1881 and 1888, when Rabbi Kupersz- tok served in the town of Rozan, approximately 70 kilometers north of War- saw. The parties had turned to the rabbi for the ruling, and each party had argued its case before him. Nevertheless, there was no guarantee that the losing side would accept the ruling. There was no formal mechanism, such as a writ of execution, that would ensure that the parties followed the jurist’s decision. There were many factors that could influence the outcome: the goodwill of the parties, the power of the community to enforce rulings, the standing of the jurist and so on. In addition to his decision, a jurist might therefore choose to try to convince the parties or encourage them to heed his ruling.
In this case, it appears that Rabbi Kupersztok added the hassidic reference in order to exhort the second operator of the mill to obey the judgment. Lest the second operator was considering the possibility of ignoring the ruling, Rabbi Kupersztok reminded him that depriving someone of his livelihood is a perilous path. He might be prepared to ignore the rabbinic ruling, but would he be prepared to commit murder?