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The Jewish Ethicist: The Extortion Game

The Jewish Ethicist: The Extortion Game

In my business, bribery is just part of the territory.


The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project with the JCT Center for Business Ethics.

Q. "Business as usual" for our construction firm is like this: We have to pay off City Hall to get a building permit, compensate the police to let us unload building materials, acknowledge the union official in order to get construction workers, and reward the city engineer to certify the building. Finally, we have to pay the tax examiners to let us declare all these payments as a business expense!

We can't survive without giving in to this extortion. Is it ethical for me to continue in this business?

A. Sounds like you are in a pretty trying situation. And don't worry -- I won't let anyone know how much you offered to pay me to give a lenient reply.

Judaism's view of bribery is clear: "Don't accept bribes, for bribery blinds even the wise and distorts even the words of the righteous". (Exodus 23:8.) Although the verse refers to a judge, the rationale applies to anyone in a position of public trust. A person may rationalize accepting a bribe and convince himself that his judgment will be unaffected, but the Torah tells us that even a wise and righteous person can't avoid having his point of view influenced by a bribe.

So accepting a bribe can never be tolerated. It is equally wrong to pay a bribe to sway an official to betray his public trust. This amounts to "a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14), a moral snare that encourages him to sin. And when an official exceeds his authority, then whatever service he performs is really unauthorized. This amounts to stealing from the public, which Jewish tradition tells us is the worst kind of theft.

When we have to pay someone to get him to do what he is supposed to be doing anyway, we enter a gray area. There is no betrayal of public trust, because instead of inducing him to stumble, we are urging him to do the right thing. Yet even this kind of payment has dangers.

First of all, if everybody becomes reconciled to bribes, it becomes impossible to rectify the situation. Open bribery undermines society's moral fiber.

Secondly, it's easy to cross the line into criminal activity. It's hard to believe that the building inspector who charges a thousand dollars to approve a sound building wouldn't accept ten thousand dollars to approve an unsound one. The same goes for the builder who will find cutting corners in building and paying off the inspector an attractive bargain.

This distinction between paying someone to do something he shouldn't and paying him to do something he should is entrenched in American law in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Payments "influencing any act or decision of [a] foreign official in his official capacity" are strictly forbidden; conversely, there is an exception to the prohibition for payments to "expedite or to secure the performance of a routine governmental action" such as obtaining permits.

In your case, payments for routine things like building permits, getting workers, and obtaining approval are not necessarily unethical, if you are not transgressing any laws.

Paying off the police is very demoralizing for society, and is much worse. Since you face extortion, perhaps it could be justified if you scrupulously move construction materials and waste in strictest accordance with accepted practice.

Payments to the tax officials clearly cross the red line. Your firm is paying them to betray their public trust to supervise your accounts; furthermore, you take advantage of this betrayal to gain an illegal tax break.

The Jewish way has traditionally been to stand up to moral challenges, not to evade them. After all, it's easy to be an angel if nobody ruffles your feathers. But it's still true that some kinds of business have to be left to scoundrels, and perhaps construction in your city is one of them.

Sources: Tosefta, Bava Kamma, 10:14.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

May 26, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) , June 9, 2001 12:00 AM


Wow, this _is_ a really tough situation. You have my sympathy on that. I think you already know that it isn't an ethical business for you to be in as things are being run, or you wouldn't be questioning it. The question is what you can do to extricate yourself without causing any undue harm to yourself or your family financially or physically. As I see it, there are several choices. I think the ideas of changing businesses or moving to a new city are good ones if you can do them, and they are certainly easier than the proverbial high road, which would involve confronting the corruption and exposing it, but would also cause you a great deal of hardship. You could also just decide that you don't care about being an ethical person and continue on as you are; even deciding for the status quo is making a choice. I hope you can find a palatable way to resolve your dilemna that won't involve compromising your moral principles.

(3) Ellen Rosen, June 3, 2001 12:00 AM

The Rabbi is right ...

It seems that in the long run, one can't help but hurt themselves if they're engaged in unethical and/or illegal behavior regardless of the justification. I'm imagining the slow and subtle loss of integrity and self-esteem as months and years pass and bribery becomes a way of life. The inclination to give people the benefit of the doubt sours and distrust sets in. And what to the children see, hear and learn? Sneering cynicism for public officials? That the world's a dog-eat-dog place? And then there's the empty moment on Yom Kippur when asking for forgiveness is completely meaningless as the unethical deeds knowingly will resume the next day. In spite of all the justifications (it's a successful family business, it's all I know how to do, etc) there seems to be too many occupational options in this world if one truly wants a bribery-free life. Try it.

(2) Anonymous, May 29, 2001 12:00 AM

The Real World and Its Discontents

Rabbi Asher's interpretation may be correct but the real world is rife with situations where bribery is the only rational course for a business person to take.
As a construction executives we constantly get hit up in the middle of a project for "extras" from the police so that our deliveries, made in scrupulously legal fashion, receive the same traffic protection that our competitors have. Don't want to pay? Then you don't want any materials delivered to your jobsite for a few weeks. Since you're already half done, they know they've got you over a barrel. You have a contract to fulfill and they've got a need for "extras". It gets worse when their superiors get involved. They want more than the beat cops.
If you stubbornly refuse to pay, they may start destroying your equipment. A few well-placed 9mm bullets can hash up an engine pretty effectively. Can you afford to put a lot of your valuable employees out of work, lose a good chunk of your hard-earned capital, ruin your future credit rating, and spend countless fruitless hours trying to prosecute the police (a hysterically funny idea in many communities)over a few hundred dollars?
So, how many people's lives and fortunes are you going to ruin for your ideals? This is not an idle calculation, Rabbi, but an everyday dilemma for many hardworking people.

(1) Donald Tungate, May 27, 2001 12:00 AM

Theft of moral values

The paying of a bribe and the acceptance of it is the theft of a moral value, honesty.
Furthermore, it is the perpetuation of a lie. The lie that the person accepting the bribe is working for a wage paid by his employer.
Therefore, it is not correct behavior and should not be tolerated.
The choices, do not pay the bribe and try to get jobs where the bribe is not demanded,find a different line of work, or move to a city where the practice is not tolerated.
We are not to steal.

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