click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

The Jewish Ethicist: Grease or Graft

The Jewish Ethicist: Grease or Graft

Can I pay off a crooked official to get him to do his job?


Q. I support a charitable organization in a somewhat backward developing country. A local official warned me that any donations are likely to be "skimmed" by the administrators. I'm thinking of offering this official a small payment to help keep an eye on the crooked administration, but I wonder if this kind of bribe is ethical.

A. This situation presents a troubling ethical dilemma. On the one hand, we know that bribery is improper. On the other hand, the goal of protecting charity donations seems most worthy. We need to dig beneath the superficial truisms and determine exactly where the ethical problem with bribery lies.

The Torah tells us: "Don't take bribes, for bribes blind the sighted and distort the words of the righteous" (Exodus 23:8). The verse doesn't tell us not to take bribes to distort justice -- it is obvious that this is forbidden. Rather, the Torah informs us that bribes are certain to affect our judgment in subtle ways, so that even the words of the righteous are distorted. A judge may not accept bribes even to make a judgment that he is convinced he would reach anyway.

Where does the Torah forbid giving bribes? This prohibition is a corollary of the prohibition on receiving bribes, since the Torah forbids us to cause others to transgress. The commandment "Don't place a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14) includes the problem of creating a spiritual obstacle to someone who is blind to the ethical course of action.

Therefore, it is improper to give an inducement for a person to neglect or distort his professional responsibility. This includes various kinds of kickbacks meant to induce buyers to act against the interest of the employer, as we discussed in a previous column

What happens if we give someone an inducement to fulfill his professional responsibility? Evidently this doesn't create a "stumbling block," so it should be permissible.

Even so, immense care is needed before giving a bribe for someone even to do something proper. First of all, we need to carefully examine our own motives to see if we are truly impartial. Perhaps we are really seeking some kind of unfair favoritism. Another problem is that making these payments perpetuates the corrupt system whereby people only do their job if they are given inducements.

Careful thought is needed to see if your situation meets all these criteria. If it would be appropriate for this official to be preventing the kind of "skimming" you describe as part of his job, and local ethical norms are so backward that your silent protest by refusing to pay a bribe is really of no relevance, it may be ethically justified to make a payment, especially for such an important objective. Ideally, a way would be found to encourage this official to keep an eye on all contributions, to avoid creating unfair favoritism.

It is interesting that the American Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) makes a similar distinction, forbidding bribes but permitting "grease" payments which are given to facilitate performance of a routine government action -- one which the official is supposed to be doing anyway.

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 Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. 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.

March 22, 2003

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Larry Schoen, March 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Don't feed the beast

While the answer may be strictly correct from an ethical point of view, it is probably the wrong answer from a business point of view (even if the business is tzedakah).

The official hitting you up for a bribe may be using the situation to his own advantage. And as Al Puglisi points out, you may be perpetuating the system.

"To know is a big deal." as one of my mentors in business used to say. Get more information about what's going on - it might benefit you, the recipients and the goals of the process.

Also, what is the purpose of the donations? If people are starving as we speak then clearly immediate action may be needed. But maybe this is a longer term project that warrants asking some questions. Why is the country undeveloped in the first place? Has it been held back by corruption? Has it been manipulated by powerful interests outside? Has communication been poor? Could the bribes, well meaning tho they may be, encourage a system of dependency on those in power?

From the point of view of effectiveness, the payoffs should be the last resort.

(2) al puglisi, March 24, 2003 12:00 AM

not sure

This is the first time I have ever disagreed with the Jewish ethicist. It seems to me that submitting to bribery to get an official to do his job only perpertuates the corrupt system and makes the "briber" a slave to the bribee, who will no doubt demand bigger and bigger sums to do the job he is supposed to be doing anyway. Kind of like paying the police a bribe to enforce the law. I would think that if the official is aware of the "skimming" and doing nothing about it, he is probably a partaker, so this amounts to little more than the old protection rackets. Expose the bum for what he is, and if necessary, find another charity in a place where you do not have to tender bribes to do good works.There is no shortage of them.

(1) Hey, March 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Nice article!

Comprehensive answer to a complicated dilemna

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment