“Wronging One Another: The Torah’s Unique Viewpoint”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Behar, we twice encounter the mitzvah of o’na’ah – the prohibition of not wronging others. The first reference, in Leviticus 25:14, reads: “Al to’nu eesh et a’chiv,” Do not hurt or grieve one another. Shortly after, verse 17, says: “V’lo to’nu eesh et a’meeto, v’ya’ray’tem may’E’lo’keh’cha, kee ani Hashem E’lo’kay’chem,” 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 is ona’at mamon, the statute against taking unfair advantage of others in business, and ona’at d’varim, the prohibition of not hurting others with words in personal relationships.

These laws are quite remarkable and underscore the Torah’s special sensitivity, especially when dealing with common human behavior. According to Jewish law, a person in business is not permitted to cheat another when selling an object by offering inferior quality or insufficient quantity. The Torah, in fact, declares such a sale invalid. Everyone understands that dishonesty in business undermines the economic system, but 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 that exacting excessive profits are illegal. Furthermore, the Torah not only sets limits on profits, but, remarkably, sets limits on losses as well. The Torah, in fact, sets rates. 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 true value, then the seller may invalidate the sale, because a merchant need not lose more than a sixth of the object’s value. This law not only applies in buying and selling, Jewish law also prohibits excessive profiteering when hiring a worker or renting an animal or equipment. In contrast, the Roman law prohibiting profiteering was known as “Laesio Major,” and limits on profits were set at up to one half the object’s value.

Business values in Judaism are quite different from general secular business values as practiced today. In the United States, if someone is wrongly overcharged, we simply say to the victim: “Caveat Emptor” which is Latin for “Let the buyer beware.” In effect, we are saying, “Tough luck, buddy! Next time be more careful. In the future, do some comparison shopping to make sure that you know what you are buying!” Jewish law, on the other hand, is based on honesty and justice, values that must be practiced by all–both buyer and 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 says 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 personal relationships, is worse than o’na’at ma’mon, taking advantage of them in business, because money can be replaced, but shame can never be undone. The Talmud, therefore, says that one who embarrasses his or her fellow person in public is much like a murderer.

The Talmud, in Baba Metzia 58b, records 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 when he or she does not intend to buy the article. Once the transaction has been completed, one may not scout other stores to determine whether they paid a good price, unless they will be using that information to evaluate whether that particular store might be less expensive, and will use that information in determining whether to buy there in the future. The reason for this is that when inquiring for a price, one misleads the owner of the store into thinking that the inquirer is truly interested in buying, and the letdown of no sale causes 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 towards a penitent, or a Ba’al T’shuva. One may not hurt them by saying: “Remember your previous deeds when you weren’t religious.” There is 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 especially vulnerable people must be protected from abuse. That is the reason why the Talmud says that it is forbidden to even suggest to someone whose life is filled with suffering and misfortune that he/she 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 intent 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 particularly vulnerable. One is not permitted to say even truthful things that are hurtful, not only because of the laws of loshon 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 simcha, when it is known that the invitee is scheduled to be out of town, 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 meal. One is prohibited to give advice that one knows is bad or incorrect. That is why verse 17 ends with the words, “v’ya’ray’tem may’E’loke’cha,” You shall fear G-d.

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

May you be blessed.