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    Public service ethics – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. What halachic rules apply to working in the public service?

    A. The general principle is enunciated in the prayer for the congregation, which speaks of engaging in the service of the community b’emunah, reliably and honestly.

    Service of the community in the narrower or wider sense requires that a person –
    1. Concentrate on their official task. They must eat and sleep well, exercise regularly and look after their health in order to be able to work effectively.

    They must not engage in any private business or secondary occupation. Heart and mind must be on their work.

    The model is Moses who “went down from the mount to the people” (Ex. 19:14) – i.e. he did not let himself be deflected by private concerns.

    2. Not use an official position for personal benefit.

    “Rorting the system” must not even be considered. Accepting a bribe or turning a blind eye to something untoward “distorts the words of the righteous” (Deut. 16:19).

    3. Be patient and polite to the public: an official “must be known for his deeds, and all these deeds must be pleasant and appropriate” (Maimonides, Hilchot De’ot 5:1).

    4. Be accountable to the public.

    When Moses went about the camp (Ex. 33:8), some of the people might have grumbled, “Whatever he eats and drinks comes from us; whatever he possesses comes from us”; hence Moses pledged, “When the task (of building the tabernacle) in complete, I will give a full account” (Midrash Tanchuma).

    The Mishnah (Sh’kalim 3:2) recognises that public officials might be suspected of pocketing public funds; hence such people were not to wear garments with pockets or long sleeves which might invite unfavourable comments.

    5. Be accompanied by others when collecting public funds and when distributing moneys.

    6. Leave a time gap between moving from a public to a private position or vice versa in order to avoid the suspicion that they are exploiting the contacts, information or expertise they gained in the previous position.

    7. At all times, know that they are answerable not only to their immediate superior and to the public, but to the all-seeing eye of God.

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