Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

A halachic guide to voting correctly

We will hear much after Tuesday about how Jews voted on Election Day, but we should not be as concerned with whether Jews vote, but whether they vote as Jews should vote, putting Jewish law and values ahead of mundane considerations.

There is a halachic approach to choosing people to represent us in government. From a practical standpoint, however, it is an approach that would keep us home on Election Day, which in itself would violate halachic rules relating to our communal responsibilities.

Of course, elections, as we know them, were not a part of either the Torah’s or the Talmud’s explicit legislation, but we are offered subjective guidelines on the kinds of leaders we should choose.

In this regard, I frequently cite an excerpt from the Takkanot of the Council of Cracow (which ruled Jewish life there in the Middle Ages). It tells us that voters must “act for the sake of heaven and the common good…, and not out of favoritism or self-interest or personal grudge,” such as by voting against candidates who favor social welfare programs because we want to pay less in taxes. Most important, voters “should not act hurriedly, but should think carefully,” because once the votes are cast, “nothing can be changed.”

Such guidelines are too general and too subjective, however, so we need to find an appropriate halachic model from which to deduce more unambiguous guidelines.

The United States is a republican form of democracy. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, it is a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Thus, the people we elect to run our government are our equals when it comes to the rights, obligations, and privileges of citizenship. They are us. That makes our elected representatives our active partners in governance. Perhaps we should choose them as we would choose a business partner. Our search for guidelines, therefore, should look first to Judaism’s business laws.

Two principles stand out here — ”lifnei iver,” or the placing of a stumbling block before the blind, and “geneivat da’at,” the theft of knowledge (a category of economic/halachic crime that includes false and misleading advertising, and deceptive packaging). While they apply generally (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Chulin 94a, for example), they have specific applications to Jewish business ethics.

Both are derived from Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not…put a stumbling block before the blind,” which is a general principle that goes beyond its simple meaning.

If politics followed these two principles, most candidates today would be disqualified from running because their deceptive campaign advertising and stump speeches place a “stumbling block before the blind” and amount to “theft of knowledge.” Opponents’ records often are distorted beyond recognition, as are their positions on hot-button issues.

For example, if one candidate supports a more humane approach to immigration, his or her opponent likely will accuse that candidate of wanting to flood a community with rapists, murderers, and drug lords. A case in point is a political commercial by the Republican candidate for New Jersey governor, Kim Guadagno. It says that her Democratic opponent, Phil Murphy, “would rather protect dangerous criminals and murderers…than stand up for the law abiding people of New Jersey,” because of his views on immigration. His proposals, she said, are designed to “protect violent criminals.”

The Newark Star-Ledger, which only grudgingly supports Murphy, said that Guadagno is “using distortion to fan fear of minorities and stir up the white vote — much like the infamous, race-baiting attack ad from George [H.W.] Bush did in 1988, starring [Willy] Horton, a black felon.” That ad began a major slide into oblivion for Bush’s opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

The nature of many political contributions also is at issue as a form of bribery, in the eyes of halacha. The gun lobby, for example, gives money to candidates who will protect its interests. (This also is a violation of the Torah’s insistence not to favor either the rich man or the poor one in a dispute.) Since bribery must be avoided, we also must avoid those who give or accept the bribes. Any candidate — liberal, conservative, or middle of the road — who takes money from special interests, then, would be disqualified.

We also should avoid those who sell something potentially dangerous to someone who might use it in a dangerous way, because such a sale is forbidden. Specifically, BT Avodah Zarah 15b bans the sale of weapons to people who are known to use them in an illegal way or who possibly may do so. It also bans selling a weapon to someone who might sell it to a suspected thief or murderer. It is not too far a leap to see here a prohibition against facilitating such a sale, meaning politicians who oppose putting limits on weapons sales.

The same can be applied to many issues, especially including the current opioid epidemic, and to anyone who seeks to make it easier for drug companies to sell these drugs with abandon.

The stumbling block rule applies here as well. Unless a candidate is willing to disclose any understanding, stated or implied, that went with a particular special interest contribution, the public is being denied necessary information regarding a potential danger to its welfare.

The necessity for full disclosure has other applications in the political sphere. Candidates, for example, talk about their “plans,” but rarely provide the specifics we need to evaluate those plans properly. “I’m for cutting taxes” could mean cutting taxes for lower-income people only, or for upper income-people only, or across the board, or some other permutation. What the candidate means by the phrase, and what each voter means by it, can be very different.

Cutting taxes, especially with abandon, is halachically dicey, in any case. The Torah’s emphasis on our obligations to the poor outweighs a community’s right to decide what its taxes should be, as some rabbinic decisions have made clear over time. If the community’s ability to aid the poor will be injured substantively by a tax cut, a majority vote in favor of that tax cut must be ignored. On the other hand, the majority rules if the cut does not so harm the community’s ability to help the poor.

Without full disclosure, then, we inadvertently might give someone the power to do what we ourselves are not permitted to do. That is a stumbling block placed before the blind, if ever there was one.

As I said earlier, from a practical standpoint, trying to apply these guidelines would keep us home on Election Day — and that also is not permitted.

That leaves us with nowhere to go, except to choose a candidate who we believe will best heed the words of Isaiah that we read as the haftarah on Yom Kippur (Chapter 58):

“Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen [says God] — to loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring the poor, who are cast out, to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your … righteousness go before you…; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noon day; and the Lord shall guide you continually….”

That is the Jewish way to vote.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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