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Guide for the Perplexed
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CHAPTER XLII

THE precepts of the seventh class are the civil laws enumerated in the Section on Judgments, and part of the Section on Property. The object of these precepts is obvious. They define the ways of equity in the various transactions which must take place between man and man. Those that are engaged in such transactions must mutually promote each other’s interests; neither of the parties must strive to increase only his own profit, and that he alone should enjoy the whole benefit of the transaction. In the first place, no overcharge is permitted; only the ordinary and known rate of profit may be taken. The law fixes the limits of profits within which the transaction is valid. Even imposition in mere words [where no material harm is inflicted] is forbidden, as is well known. Next comes the law of the four kinds of bailees: the fairness of the law is evident. If one keeps the property of his neighbour for nothing, without deriving therefrom any benefit for himself, and is only obliging his neighbour, he is free from all responsibility, and if any injury is done to the property, the owner alone must bear the loss. He who borrows a thing keeps it only for his own advantage, whilst the owner lends it to him to oblige him; he is therefore responsible for everything; any loss in the property must be borne by the borrower. If one takes wages for keeping the property or pays for using it, he as well as the owner profit thereby; the losses must therefore be divided between them. It is done in this manner; the bailee pays for any loss caused through want of care, namely, when the property is stolen or lost; for this happens only when the bailee does not take sufficient precaution. The owner, on the other hand, bears such losses as cannot be prevented; namely, if by accident the animal falls and breaks its limbs, or is carried away by armed men as booty, or if it dies. The Law further ordains merciful conduct towards hired workmen because of their poverty. Their wages should be paid without delay, and they must not be wronged in any of their rights: they must receive their pay according to their work. Another instance of kindness to workmen is this: according to the regulations of this law, workmen, and even animals, must be permitted to partake of the food in the preparation of which they have been engaged. The laws which relate to property include laws concerning inheritance. They are based on the sound principle that man must not “withhold good from those to whom it is due” (Prov. iii. 27), and when he is about to die, he must not conceive ill-will against his heirs, by squandering his property, but leave it to the one who has the greatest claim on it, that is, to him who is his nearest relation, “unto his kinsman that is next to him of his family” (Num. xxvii. 11). It is clearly stated that the son has the first claim, then comes the daughter, then the brother, and then the father’s brothers, as is well known. The father must leave the right of the first-born to his eldest son, because his love for this son came first; he must not be guided by his inclination. He may not make the son of the beloved first-born before the son of the hated (Deut. xxi. 16). Thus our highly equitable Law preserves and strengthens the virtue of respecting all kinsmen, and doing well unto them, as the prophet says: “He that is cruel troubleth his own flesh” (Prov. xi. 17). The Law correctly says, “Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, unto thy poor” (Deut. xv. 11). Our Sages bestow much praise upon him who is kind to his relatives, and him who marries the daughter of his sister. The Law has taught us how far we have to extend this principle of favouring those who are near to us, and of treating kindly every one with whom we have some relationship, even if he offended or wronged us; even if he is very bad, we must have some consideration for him. Thus the Law says: “Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother” (ibid. xxiii. 7). Again, if we find a person in trouble, whose assistance we have once enjoyed, or of whom we have received some benefit, even if that person has subsequently done evil to us, we must bear in mind his previous [good] conduct. Thus the Law tells us: “Thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land” (ibid.), although the Egyptians have subsequently oppressed us very much, as is well-known. See how many moral lessons we have derived from these precepts. The last two precepts do not belong to the seventh class: but the discussion of the preference due to relatives as regards inheritance led us to speak of the Egyptians and the Edomites.

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