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CAN YOU MOVE YOUR BOUNDARIES?

Friday, 17 August, 2018 - 12:16 pm

A Jewish American girl joined the UN and went to do humanitarian work in Africa. After a two-year stint, she returned home to Brooklyn.

When her mother opened the door, she was shocked to see her standing next to a boyfriend she had brought back from Africa... and not just any boyfriend! He was a big, burly Zulu warrior with a bald head, loincloth, beads around his neck, a spear and a shield. To top it off, he was carrying a bag of bones in his pouch.

Her mother stood there stunned and speechless.

Finally, she recovered somewhat and shouted at her daughter, " I told you to marry a rich doctor, not a witch doctor!"

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, deals with what is known in Torah law as "moving the boundary markers."

The literal meaning of this law is that one must not move markers, pegs, or any other landmarks that define boundaries between neighbors' properties. To go in the middle of the night and move the landmarks, or to take some of your neighbor's land for yourself, carries an additional prohibition beyond the normal laws against theft.

This law, known as “hasagat gevul,” moving the boundaries, gives rise to a whole slew of laws dealing with market competition.

Although the Torah generally supports a free market economy, allowing for entrepreneurship, competition, and creativity, there are questions. What happens if I open a business that “infringes on your property,” meaning it directly takes away your business, to the point that you cannot earn what you need to live? Is this permitted?

The Talmud discusses two scenarios. You are a fisherman and you fish in a lake. I spread out my net right near your net. Is that permitted?

This question was raised 1,800 years ago.

Generally, the consensus amongst most halachic authorities is that competition is fine, as long as the competitor will not cause the other person financial ruin. Although, as the code of Jewish law concludes, it is the way of the pious not to cause any financial harm to another person’s business.

The Chatam Sofer permits competition when the new store will only decrease the profits of the original proprietor. However, a competition that will eliminate the original proprietor's ability to earn a livelihood is forbidden. But some disagree and hold that all competition is permitted.

In the 16th century, Cracow's chief rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Iserlish, known as the Rama, adjudicated a dispute between two Italian publishers who both printed editions of the Maimonides' Mishneh Torah. The one who first published it objected to a rival edition. The Rama ruled against the second one, reasoning that all Jewish law authorities forbid opening a store if it will clearly ruin the original entrepreneur's business. The Rama thus concluded that the second man should not be patronized, as he was ruining the first one's livelihood. Only after he finished selling his books could the second publisher sell his books.   

But one year ago, there was a dispute between two pizza shops in Brooklyn which made a big splash in the press. Basil Pizza & Wine Bar is an established gourmet spot on Kingston Avenue.

Enter Calabria, which opened its doors some months ago—directly across the street from Basil.

Basil's owners sued in rabbinical court, contending that Calabria’s pizza was, like theirs, “specialty” pizza, and would interfere with Basil’s livelihood. They had invested enormous amounts to develop and promote this pizza, and this would cripple their business. Calabria contended that its “Roman-style” pizza (thick, hearty, rectangular and baked in an oil-rubbed pan) is totally different from Basil’s thin-crust Neapolitan-style pie.

What would you say? The rabbinical court ruled that Calabria could not sell specialty pizza without competing unfairly, but Calabria could sell regular (New York-style) pizza.

Calabria has since redefined its establishment as one that offers “New York-style pizza.”

My guess is there are enough pizza eaters and a large enough appetite in Brooklyn to support them both. And who knows? When you have more stores on the same block, sometimes both gain, as it attracts many more people to the area.

A follower of Rabbi Meir of Premishlan once complained about a [new] competing business. “He is depriving me of my livelihood!” cried the Chassid. “You must tell him to close his shop!”

Rabbi Meir asked, “Have you noticed how a horse behaves when he is led to a waterhole? He begins to paw angrily at the water with his hooves; only when the water is well-muddied does he drink. Why does the horse act this way?”

“I don’t know,” said the Chassid. “Why?”

“Because the horse sees his reflection in the water and thinks that another horse has come to drink his water. So he kicks and paws until he has ‘chased away’ the other horse. But the horse doesn’t understand three truths:

"1) What he sees as his opposition is only a mirror of himself. He is his own greatest enemy. It is his own face that he despises.

"2) By kicking the other horse, all he accomplishes is dirtying his own water. Instead of enjoying clean water, now he will have muddy water.

"3) He also fails to realize that G-d has created enough water for all the horses.”

But today I want to talk about another form of infringing on boundaries. Not physical or financial boundaries, but moral and spiritual boundaries.

In life, we have neighbors, friends, or relatives, who may do things differently than we do. How do we ensure we do not lose our identity, our values, our integrity, our holiness in the process?

The answer is: There are the “markers that the early ones established.” For 3,000 years, Jews maintained “markers” and “boundaries” they never crossed. These markers addressed everything—what we ate, and how we spoke, dressed, and lived. We must be cautious not to move those markers, because when we do, even a little, we may blur and louse the boundaries altogether.

Wishing you and yours a Shana Tova.

Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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