Oh’na’ah–Taking Unfair Advantage of the Weak”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, contains 53 of the 613 commandments, 30 negative commandments and 23 positive commandments. Parashat Mishpatim contains many of the fundamental laws of Judaism, and is a veritable dream for jurists and Talmudists.

The sweeping variety of laws contained in parashat Mishpatim is simply breathtaking. In addition, many of these laws are thoroughly revolutionary and groundbreaking. One of the fundamental principles introduced by the Bible in parashat Mishpatim pertains to the proper and sensitive treatment of strangers.

While other Ancient Near Eastern codes speak of having compassion for widows and orphans, and occasionally mention the poor, because of the xenophobic nature of society at that time, not one makes mention of the stranger.

The Torah, in Exodus 22:20, speaks with great sensitivity of the stranger: וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם You shall not taunt nor oppress a stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. While most commentators explain this verse as referring to converts to Judaism, the Torah’s choice of words conveys the fundamental need to be sensitive to all strangers, because, of all people, the Jews surely know what it means to be a stranger, due to their own oppressive experiences in the land of Egypt.

Rashi explains that Jews who are unkind to converts, not only violate this Torah rule, but also invite the bitter retort that, “You too were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Or HaChaim elaborates further on this concept, noting that Jews, the noble descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, can hardly justify reveling in their exalted status, since their own Jewish ancestors, while they were enslaved in Egypt, descended to the lowest levels of contamination and impurities.

The Torah in parashat Mishpatim introduces, for the first time, the concept of אונאה defined as causing pain or undue distress. אונאה frequently occurs in one of two ways: אונאת דברים, pain or distress that a person causes to a neighbor through callous speech. The second way, אונאת ממון, mentioned in the latter part of the Torah (Leviticus 25:14 and 17), is violated when either a seller or the buyer in a transaction takes unfair advantage of the other, by overpricing or even underpricing.

The Torah, in Exodus 22:21, specifically prohibits causing pain to widows or orphans, declaring: כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן. This grave Torah dictum warns that one who dares cause pain to any widow or orphan, will cause G-d’s wrath to be kindled. When G-d will hear the outcry of the victims, He shall kill the violators by the sword, resulting in the violators’ own wives becoming widows, and their children, orphans!

The fact that one verse is written in the singular, while the other is written in the plural, is seen by the The Ibn Ezra as an indication that a community that allows even one single member to cause pain to a helpless person, will see the entire community punished by Heaven.

The Mechilta, Exodus 22:22, cites a memorable dialogue between Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Simeon as they were being led to martyrdom by the Roman legions. Rabbi Simeon said to Rabbi Ishmael, “Rabbi, my heart fails me, for I cannot think of what I could have done to deserve death.” Rabbi Ishmael answered, “Think. Has it ever occurred that somebody came to you to decide what was right, or to ask a question, and you kept them waiting until you had finished your drink, or changed your shoes, or thrown your best robe over your shoulder?” The Torah states, Exodus 22:22, עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה, repeating twice that you shall not oppress anyone. This repetition teaches that it is prohibited to make people feel dependent, whether in great matters or little. Rabbi Simeon responded, “You have comforted me [now I can take my punishment gladly].”

The rabbis expand on the prohibition of harming others through speech as a form of oppression, and declare that it is forbidden for one to enter a store to ask the price of an article when the inquirer has no intention to buy, thus misleading the storekeeper. It is forbidden to say to a penitent, “I know what sins you committed before you became a penitent.” It is forbidden to say to a convert, “Yesterday you worshiped idols and ate pigs.” If a person is suffering, it is forbidden to say to that person, as Job’s friends said to him, “Your sinful behavior has caused your suffering.”

The prohibition of hurting others with one’s tongue is considered much greater than the prohibition of taking unfair advantage of one through money, because speaking harshly is similar to afflicting a person’s body, as opposed to damaging one’s property. It is therefore repeated and reiterated not to oppress a convert, either financially or through words, because the prohibition is so great.

There are many revolutionary contributions that the Torah makes to the moral and ethical development of human life, and many of the most basic are found in parashat Mishpatim.

May you be blessed.