Business Ethics & Jewish Law

Jewish law has plenty to say about conducting business: accurate weights and measures, overcharging, verbal deception, false packaging and much more.

Print this page Print this page

Ona’at Devarim (Verbal Deception)

This category is related to the second, and it is based on another verse in the same chapter ofLeviticus (25:17): “Do not deceive one another, but fear your God, for I the Lord am your God.” Since the other verse had explicitly mentioned monetary deception, the rabbis concluded that this verse refers to verbal deception. And thus we learn in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 4:10): “Just as there is deception in buying and selling, there is deception in words. A person should not say to a merchant: ‘How much does this cost?’ if he has no intention of buying it”.

But why not? What’s wrong with comparison shopping? Nothing! But in this case he is not asking in order to compare prices. He is asking out of idle curiosity, which gives the merchant false hopes. Therefore the Mishnah says “he has no intention of buying it” and a parallel [source] (Bava Metzia 58b) states that he doesn’t even have any money.

As for our own day, once again the law ofona’at devarim is very applicable. Let us say that Reuven goes into a warehouse outlet in order to buy a computer, but he wants a demonstration before he spends $1000. The warehouse outlet is not equipped for demonstrations. The salesman says to Reuven: “go to the IBM showroom down the block and ask for a demonstration, then come back here and buy the computer at our low low price”. Reuven complies and gets a free demonstration plus a discount.

In this case, Reuven has committedona’at devarim—verbal deception. When Reuven asks for the demonstration at the IBM store, he has absolutely no intention of purchasing the computer there. He merely wants a free demonstration. The IBM salesman is being deceived. He either loses a real customer while waiting on Reuven, or feels badly when Reuven walks out on him after a half-hour demonstration. This isona’at devarim.

False Packaging or False Labeling

This is an example of geneyvat da’at, which literally means, “stealing a person’s mind.” Interestingly enough, [this prohibition] is not based on a specific verse from the Bible, but was derived by the Sages from the laws of theft and the laws of honesty. We learn in the [second-century commentary, the]Mekhilta (D’nezikin, Chap. 13): “There are seven kinds of thieves: the first is he who steals themind of his neighbor…”

The Talmud gives a number of specific examples of such false packaging or false labeling. [Two examples follow:]

“Our Sages have taught: one should not sell a sandal made from the leather of an animal that died of disease as if it was made from the leather of an animal that was slaughtered, because he is misleading the customer.” (B.T. Hullin 94a)

“One should not sift the beans at the top of the bushel because he is “deceiving the eye” by making the customer think that the entire bushel has been sifted. It is forbidden to paint animals or utensils in order to improve their appearance or cover up their defects.” (B.T. Bava Metzia 60a-b)

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.