Fair Dealing and Fraud

My weekly lectures (available at the Internet Archive) and column for this past פרשת בהר discussed the laws of אונאה:

In parashas Behar, the Torah commands (25:14): “And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbour, or buyest ought of thy neighbour’s hand, ye shall not oppress [or ‘aggrieve’] one another.” The Talmud (Bava Metzia 51a, 58b) explains that this refers to onaas mamon, i.e., the mispricing of goods in a sale: a seller may not overcharge a buyer, and a buyer may not underpay a seller.

Onaah applies where the price paid is above or below the merchandise’s ‘correct’ price; it is not entirely clear, however, how to define this ‘correct’ price. The Talmud and early sources apparently take for granted that any particular merchandise has a well defined price, and it seems that there was typically little or no variation in price between vendors (but see Aruch Ha’Shulchan CM 227:7). In contemporary markets, however, merchandise is typically sold at a variety of different prices by different vendors; what, then, determines the maximum price at which it may be sold?

One possibility is that the maximum permissible price is simply the lowest one at which the merchandise is available. Since the buyer is able to purchase the merchandise for that price, any higher price is unfair to him and constitutes onaah (see Erech Shai CM beginning of #209). R. Chaim Kohn, however, rejects this as being both untenable (as according to this view, violations of onaah are ubiquitous) and illogical (why should the lowest price be the exclusively legitimate one?). He argues that any price established by the normal free market forces of supply and demand is legitimate, and onaah applies only to prices outside the range established by these forces (Kol Ha’Torah #49 [Tishrei 5761] pp. 286-87, and cf. Pischei Choshen Onaah Ch. 10 n. 1).

Others suggest that the ‘correct’ price is theoretically defined as the midpoint between the highest and lowest prices for which the merchandise is sold, but in practice, there are various reasons why the traditional laws of onaah will generally not apply to sales in the contemporary free market economy (Darkei Horaah pp. 121-24, and cf. Alon Ha’Mishpat #63 [Nisan 5774]).

The fundamental concept upon which the laws of אונאה are based is that of the merchandise’s “fair price”, which is defined as its local, current price. אונאה is generally committed when one buys or sells at a price that deviates from this price, regardless of the price the seller paid for the merchandise or other considerations. Of critical practical importance, therefore – and yet frustratingly difficult to properly address – is the question of how this fair price is determined in a marketplace where various vendors offer the merchandise for sale at different prices. The great nineteenth century חושן משפט authority Rav Shlomo Yehudah Tabak seems to maintain that the fair price is established by the lowest price available, since if the merchandise is sold above that price, the buyer is thereby injured:

ויש להם אונאה כתב הש”ך אפילו אותו דבר אין שער שלו ידוע נשאלתי אם איסור אונאה דוקא בדבר שיש שער קצוב שכל בעלי חנויות מוכרין בשוה אבל כשכל חנוני מוכר כפי מה שיכול להוציא מן הקונה אם מותר למכור ביוקר בדבר שיכול הקונה לקנות דבר זה אצל אחר בזול והשבתי הדבר מבואר בש”ך כאן … [באונאה] אין לחלק דכל שיודע דאפשר ליקחנו אצל אחר בפחות מאנהו ואסור.1

Several leading contemporary חושן משפט authorities, however, find this position completely untenable.

Rav Chaim Kohn:

ולדבריו [של הערך ש”י] יש לעיין כפי הנהוג בשוק החופשי כאשר המחיר וערך הסחורה נקבעין לפי גורמי ביקוש [ו]הצע האם שייכת אונאה באם אינו מוכר במחיר הזול ביותר שהסחורה נמכרת בה, ולפום ריהטא על זה דן הערך ש”י ולפי זה שייך אונאה גם בסחורה הנמכרת לפי גורמי ביקוש והצע והחנויות באותו השוק מוכרות אותה הסחורה במחירים שונים, וממילא המוכר הסחורה במחיר גבוה מהמחיר הזול ביותר יש בו אונאה. ומלבד דאם כן הוא לא שבקת חיי לכל בריה, עצם הסברא אינה מובנת וגם הראיה מהש”ך צ”ע, דהנה גדר אונאה הוא שהמחיר אינו כפי ערך הסחורה, וקביעת ערך הסחורה הוא כפי הגורמים הקובעים את ערכה בשוק, וממילא בשוק שהסחורה נמכרת לפי גורמי ביקוש והצע כל מחיר שהוא בכלל הגורמים הנ”ל הוא בכלל הערך, ואם כן למה נאמר שהמוכר במחיר הזול ביותר הוא זה שקובע את ערך הסחורה והמוכר ביותר ממחיר זה יש בו אונאה, הא גם המוכר במחיר יקר יותר יכול לומר שזהו ערך הסחורה אם המחיר בכלל גורמי הערך הנ”ל. …2

R. Kohn’s own position is that any price that is in accordance with the properly functioning forces of supply and demand (“גורמי ביקוש והצע”) is perforce legitimate. He develops his thesis at some length, but I do not fully understand his distinction between prices that are in accordance with the forces of supply and demand and those that are not.

Similarly, Rav Mendel Shafran argues that R. Tabak does not actually mean what his closing words seem to imply:

ויש שדייקו מהערך ש”י, שמחשבים את השווי של החפץ לענין אונאה על פי בעל החנות הזול ביותר, לפי מה שכתב בסוף דבריו שכל שיודע שאפשר לקנות חפץ כזה יותר בזול אינו רשאי למוכרו ביוקר. אך באמת אין הנידונים דומים, ולנידון זה אין ראיה מהש”ך, דמדברי הש”ך מוכח רק שיש אונאה גם בדבר שאינו קצוב, אך לא מבואר מדבריו כלל לפי איזה מחיר אומדים את האונאה.3

A mini-haburah I delivered a couple of years ago on the application of אונאה to contemporary markets is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. ערך ש”י חו”מ ריש סימן ר”ט []
  2. רב חיים קאהן, מחירים בשוק חפשי ואונאה בדבר שאין לו שער ידוע, קול התורה חוברת מ”ט תשרי ה’תשס”א עמוד רפב []
  3. עלון המשפט, גליון חודש ניסן ה’תשע”ד #63 עמוד 6, ועיין עוד פתחי חושן, הלכות גניבה ואונאה, פרק י’ הערה א’ מד”ה בהמשך פרק זה []

Of Things That Never Were and Never Will Be

My lecture (available at the Internet Archive) and weekly column for these past פרשיות תזריע ומצורע discussed the Talmudic principles of מאי דהוה הוה and דרוש וקבל זכר, and the practical applicability of the laws of נגעי בתים in particular:

Parashiyos Tazria and Metzora contain the detailed laws of several forms of tzaraas (commonly, but not necessarily accurately, translated as ‘leprosy’): afflictions of the skin, the hair of the head or beard, garments, warp and woof, and leather, and houses.

As we have discussed elsewhere, there is considerable debate over whether the tzaraas of the body referred to by the Torah is a natural, contagious disease, or a supernatural ailment. With regard to tzaraas of garments and houses, the Rambam declares that “they are not of the way of the world, but were a sign and wonder in Israel to warn them against evil speech” (Tumas Tzaraas 16:10).

With regard to tzaraas of houses in particular, there are conflicting views in the Talmud over the practical applicability of the relevant laws. One opinion maintains that due to the extremely specific conditions that must be met for a house to be deemed afflicted with tzaraas, “[I]t never was and it never will be, so why was it written [in the Torah]? Investigate [the laws] and receive reward!” But the Talmud then proceeds to cite a couple of sages who assert the existence of actual, specific sites where an afflicted house had been demolished and where the stones removed from an afflicted house had been deposited (Sanhedrin 71a). Furthermore, Rashi on parashas Metzora (14:34) cites a midrash that apparently interprets the Torah’s introductory language to the laws of tzaraas on houses “and I will place a tzaraas affliction” as an assurance that such afflictions will indeed occur. The midrash goes on to explain, however, that this is actually good news: “for the Emorites had hidden caches of gold in the walls of their houses all forty years that the Jews were in the desert, and via the affliction [the Jewish homeowner] demolishes the house and finds them”.

See also our previous discussion of the Talmudic assertions that certain scenarios described in the halachic portions of the Torah “never were and never will be”.

Flora and Pfingsten

My weekly פרשה lectures and הלכה column for the past פרשיות אחרי מות-קדושים discussed the Biblical prohibition against “walking in the ordinances” of the Gentiles. As I discuss, a debate over the scope and parameters of this prohibition is apparently behind the controversy over the custom (or family of customs) of the arraying of trees, grasses and flowers in synagogues and homes on Shavuos. I also recently published a detailed article focusing specifically on this custom, its history and its attendant controversy:

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See also Flowers on Shavuos in Ami Magazine 2 Sivan, 5776 [June 8, 2016] pp. 66-70 and שטיחת עשבים ופרחים והעמדת אילנות בחג השבועות, in והנה רבקה יוצאת – עיונים במדע היהדות לכבוד רבקה דגן, pp. 211-17, both by my friend Eliezer Brodt, and Trees and Flowers on Shavuot: Is it a Pagan Practice or not? (audio) and Flowers and Trees in Shul on Shavuot in Torah To-Go, Shavuot 5777, both by my friend R. Ezra Schwartz.

My column:

In both parashiyos Acharei Mos (18:3) and Kedoshim (20:23), we are prohibited from “walking in the ordinances” of the non-Jews. This prohibition is the basis of a controversy over the custom of decorating synagogues and homes on Shavuos with grasses, trees, and flowers. The Maharil (Hilchos Shavuos) records that (fragrant) grasses and flowers (shoshanim) were arrayed on synagogue floors “for the joy of the holiday”. The Magen Avraham (siman 494 s.k. 4) records the placement of trees in synagogues and homes, which he suggests was intended as a reminder that on Shavuos we are judged regarding the fruits of the trees, and that we should pray for them.

The Gaon of Vilna reportedly opposed and abolished (at least locally) the custom of trees (and perhaps also that of grasses), since in contemporary times, the non-Jews have a similar custom on their holiday of “Pfingsten”, i.e., the Christian Pentecost, which occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday, thus paralleling, and occurring around the same time as, Shavuos, the Jewish Pentecost (Chayei Adam 131(130):13, Chochmas Adam 89:1, Aruch Ha’Shulchan OC 494:6, Shut. Igros Moshe YD 4:11:5).

But while a number of important halachic authorities, particularly within the “Lithuanian” / yeshivah tradition, follow the Gaon’s position, other major authorities reject it, in reliance upon the doctrine that non-Jewish practices are not forbidden as long as they have a rational, legitimate basis. R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson relates that he queried the non-Jews about their reason for the custom, and received a response from “their elder” that it was merely for the purpose of “honor and adornment with beautiful trees”. It therefore has a rational basis and is permitted (Divrei Shaul / Yosef Daas YD #348). R. Shalom Mordechai Schwadron justifies the custom based on the fact that we have a legitimate rationale for it, as a reminder of the judgment regarding the fruits of the trees (Orchos Chaim siman 548 os 8 – see there for an additional basis for leniency). [R. Asher Weiss notes that the Gaon is on record as rejecting the doctrine that the existence of a rational basis legitimizes non-Jewish customs (Biur Ha’Gra YD siman 178 s.k. 7), which explains his stringent position with regard to grasses and trees on Shavuos (Minchas Asher Vayikra 33:2).]

My lectures are available at the Internet Archive. Previous lectures I have given on this topic are also available there: here and here.