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Behar 5779-2019

“Wronging One Another, the Torah’s Unique Viewpoint”
(Revised and updated from Behar 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Behar, we twice encounter the mitzvah of אוֹנָאָהo’na’ah, the prohibition against wronging others.

The first reference to this prohibition is found in Leviticus 25:14, in which the Torah declares: אַל תּוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו , Do not hurt or grieve one another. Three verses later, in Leviticus 25:17, the Torah seemingly reiterates: וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱ־לֹקֶיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי השׁם, אֱלֹקֵיכֶם , Do not wrong one another, fear your G-d, for I am the L-rd your G-d.

According to tradition, these separate statements represent two different types of o’na’ah, of hurting another person. The first, אוֹנָאַת מָמוֹןona’at mamon, is a statute against taking unfair advantage of others in business, while אוֹנָאַת דְּבָרִים ona’at d’varim, prohibits hurting others with words in interpersonal relationships.

Both these laws are quite remarkable, and underscore the Torah’s exceptional sensitivity, particularly during common human interactions.

According to Jewish law, business people are forbidden to deceive others by offering merchandise of inferior quality or insufficient quantity. The Torah, in fact, declares such sales invalid.

Clearly, widespread dishonesty in business can undermine a nation’s economic system. But, when compared to other systems, the Torah’s perception of honesty is radically different and dramatically expansive. The Torah understandably, not only condemns and prohibits outright cheating and dishonesty, but also declares exacting excessive profit illegal.

Furthermore, the Torah not only sets limits on profits, but, remarkably, sets limits on losses as well. The Torah, in fact, sets rates on both profits and losses. Thus, if a storekeeper overcharges a buyer by more than one sixth the value of an object, or 16 2/3%, the sale is invalid and the article may be returned by the buyer. If the price is one sixth less than the object’s actual value, then the seller may invalidate the sale, because merchants, as well, need not lose more than a sixth of the object’s value. This law not only applies when buying and selling merchandise, it also prohibits excessive profiteering when hiring a worker or renting an animal or equipment. While the Roman law, known as “Laesio Major,” also prohibits profiteering, it allows huge profits of up to one half the object’s value.

Business practices and values in Judaism are quite unique and significantly different from the general secular business values that are practiced today. The attitude in much of the contemporary western world is “Caveat Emptor,” “Let the buyer beware.” In effect, we cynically declare, “Tough luck, buddy! Next time be more careful. In the future, do some comparison shopping to make sure that you know the true value of what you purchased!”

Jewish law, on the other hand, is based on honesty and justice, values that must be practiced by all–both the buyer and the seller. However, if, before the transaction, the buyer had the opportunity to discern the true value of the object and much time has elapsed without any complaint, then the buyer may not return the item. Also, if the seller clearly declares that he or she intends to profit more than one sixth, and the buyer knows this and nevertheless proceeds with the purchase, the transaction cannot be reversed.

As one would expect, the rabbis declare that o’na’at devarim, hurting people with words in interpersonal relationships, is worse than o’na’at ma’mon, taking advantage of others in business, because money can be replaced, but shame can never be undone. The Talmud, in Baba Metzia 58b, therefore boldly declares that one who embarrasses a fellow human being in public is regarded as a murderer.

The Talmudic discussion continues to record a long list of actions, many of which are astonishingly revolutionary, that are forbidden because they may result in the embarrassment of another person. For instance, a person may not inquire the price of an article from a storekeeper if he or she has no intention of buying the article. Once the transaction has been completed, one may not “comparison shop” at other venues to determine whether they had gotten a good price, unless they will be using that information to evaluate whether that particular store might have better prices, and will use that information in determining whether to buy there in the future. The reason for this is that when simply inquiring for a price, the seller is often misled into thinking that the inquirer is genuinely interested in making a purchase, and the letdown causes unwarranted pain to the store owner by having created a false sense of anticipation.

The laws of o’na’ah, of not wronging others, are indeed compelling and comprehensive. They also include special sensitivity toward a penitent, a בַּעַל תְּשׁוּבָהBa’al T’shuva. One may not hurt a penitent by saying: “Remember your previous deeds when you weren’t religious.” There is a particularly strong prohibition against reminding a convert of his/her non-Jewish ancestry. In fact, one who wrongs a convert in business or in speech actually violates three Torah prohibitions.

We see that Jewish law maintains that those who are especially vulnerable must be particularly protected from abuse. That is why the Talmud states that while people should always check their deeds when evil befalls them, it is forbidden to even suggest to those whose lives are filled with suffering and misfortune, that they should check their deeds, as the possible cause of the evil. The rabbis learned that while it may be difficult for someone who is suffering to pray, the cries of one who is pained from being unjustly wronged are listened to with particular attention by G-d, and will definitely provoke a response from heaven.

That is why, as a derivative of the laws of o’na’ah, the Rabbis declared that one must be particularly careful not to wrong one’s wife, or cause undo pain to young children, who are also extremely vulnerable. One is not permitted to say even truthful things that are hurtful, not only because of the laws of לְשׁוֹן הָרָעloshon ha’ra, speaking evil, but also because of wronging the next person.

The Torah maintains, for instance, that anyone who curses another person, not only violates the prohibition of cursing, but also violates the prohibition of o’na’ah. Sending an invitation to a potential guest to attend a שִׂמְחָהsimcha, when it is known that the invitee is scheduled to be out of town, and will be unable to attend the celebration, also falls under the category of o’na’ah, since it is done in the hope of obtaining a gift without having to host the person for the celebratory party. One is prohibited to give advice that one knows is bad or incorrect. That is why Leviticus 25:17 concludes with the words, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱ־לֹקֶיךָ , You shall fear G-d.

Once again, we witness the Torah’s remarkable and insightful directives that transform lives and societies. Two little words, לֹא תוֹנוּLo to’nu, thou shall not wrong your fellow person, just two little words, go a long way to redefine proper behavior in a G-dly society.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday night, May 22nd, and continue all day Thursday, May 23rd, 2019. The Omer period, starts from the second night of Passover and continues for 49 days through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day, Lag Ba’Omer, is considered a special day of rejoicing because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.