Talmud pages

Bava Metzia 49

Return policy.

In our society, merchants for the most part are free to set the price for items they sell. It’s left to the consumer to decide if an item is reasonably priced before they make a purchase. The rabbis of the Talmud have a different vision of how the marketplace should operate. Their approach is rooted in Leviticus 25:14: “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy from your neighbor, you shall not exploit one another.” From this verse, the rabbis derive that a person is not allowed to sell an item for far more than it is worth.

How does this actually work? The attempt to work that out appears in a mishnah on today’s daf:

The (measure of) exploitation is four silver from the 24 silver in a sela, or one-sixth of the transaction. 

Until when is it permitted to return (the item)? Until one can show it to a merchant or to a relative.

In short, if a seller marks up the price of an item one-sixth or more, they are guilty of overcharging. In that case, as we’ll learn, the purchaser can return the item for a full refund or keep it and collect the amount of the overcharge from the seller. But the rabbis place a time limit on the claim — only until someone consults with others to determine if they have been exploited.

The mishnah is not univocal about this rule, as it presents an anecdote that includes another opinion and which suggests that not everyone is as interested in establishing a system of fair pricing as the rabbis.

Rabbi Tarfon ruled in Lod: Exploitation of eight silver from the 24 silver of a sela, or one-third of the transaction. And the merchants of Lod rejoiced.

Rabbi Tarfon sets the bar for overcharging at one-third, double what was allowed by the initial opinion in the mishnah. As expected, the local merchants were thrilled about this, as it doubled their profits. But that’s not the whole story:

Rabbi Tarfon said to them: “The entire day (it is permitted) to renege.” They said to him:  “Leave us as we were, Rabbi Tarfon,” and they reverted to the teaching of the rabbis.

After Rabbi Tarfon stipulates that he grants someone an entire day to pull out of the deal, the merchants change their minds. Why would they prefer to limit their legal profit to one-sixth of the object’s value when Rabbi Tarfon would have allowed them one-third? 

For the actions of the merchants to make sense, three things must be true: (1) the merchants are planning to ignore the fraud threshold; (2) the merchants prefer a shorter return window for a fraudulent transaction; and (3) the original return time must be shorter than what Rabbi Tarfon allows.

Our initial read of the mishnah suggested the rabbis allowed an open-ended return period — that is, a buyer has as long as it takes to review their purchase with another merchant or relative. The merchants’ preference for this opinion requires us to read the mishnah in a way that creates a shorter window than that which Rabbi Tarfon allowed, which was an entire day. The merchants clearly seem to believe that the majority opinion requires a purchaser to relatively quickly seek advice about the fairness of the purchase price and return promptly to the point of sale if they wish to claim they were exploited, an action that presumably takes less than an entire day. 

With a shorter return period in place, the merchants are free to set their prices as they wish and place the burden on the consumer to act swiftly in order to hold them accountable for their overreach. And they are banking on the fact that most buyers will not make the effort to do so promptly.

Read all of Bava Metzia 49 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 17th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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