Talmudic pages

Bava Metzia 60

Looks can be deceiving.

The mishnah on today’s daf discusses various rules for fair marketing, which still seems relevant today when branding plays an outsized role in pricing: 

Rabbi Yehuda says: A storekeeper may not hand out toasted grain and nuts to children since he accustoms them to come to him. And the rabbis permit it. And one may not reduce (the price) below the market rate. And the rabbis say: (If he wishes to do so, he should be) remembered positively. 

One may not sift ground beans; this is the statement of Abba Shaul. And the rabbis permit it. And the rabbis concede that one may not sift (the meal) from the opening of the bin (only), as this is nothing other than deception. One may neither adorn a person, nor an animal nor vessels (that he seeks to sell). 

The mishnah contains several rules about the appropriate limits of marketing. First, Rabbi Yehuda says that if a storekeeper hands out free gifts, especially to children who may be easily manipulated, the seller creates an unfair advantage. The rabbinic majority, however, accepts this as a fair marketing technique to create a warm relationship between the buyer and seller. The Gemara will explain that the rabbis allow this tactic because it’s available to all competitors. 

The rabbis in the mishnah also praise a seller who offers sale prices. Like the free door prizes, low prices benefit the seller by drawing buyers, but it also serves the larger community by enabling them to buy more and, according to the Gemara, low prices positively impact market rates in favor of consumers. 

The last two rules in the mishnah have to do with the presentation of goods for sale. Abba Shaul says you may not sift ground beans in order to remove the waste and raise their price. The rabbis disagree: If the seller prepares a ready-to-use product, and the buyer can see the improvement with their own eyes, then the seller has the right to charge more. But there is one caveat: If you only sift the top layer, giving the false impression of a more expensive product, then you are simply deceiving buyers, which is certainly forbidden. So too, certain kinds of adornment of goods are considered dressing up a product to falsely inflate prices. 

The Gemara presses on this prohibition on adornment. If a seller makes a better product, why shouldn’t they be able to charge more? The Gemara’s answer is that there are different kinds of improvements. Some improvements actually make the products better and worth more, while others are made to hide flaws or cheap material. All agree that the latter are unfair manipulations.

In our own modern economy, companies often use branding to inflate the price of goods through tactics that have nothing to do with the value of the thing itself, such as larger-than-life commercials and celebrity endorsements. According to rabbinic logic, manipulating consumers into buying cheaply made objects for high prices is wrong. Even according to the rabbis who consistently allow sellers more leeway for product differentiation, improvements must actually raise the value to warrant raising the price. 

We’ve summed up the basic theme of all the cases mentioned in the mishnah, but there is one outlying point that the Gemara tarries over: The mishnah lists an enslaved person alongside other goods that cannot be adorned to inflate their price. The Gemara addresses this point with a story about a slave who is his own seller, granting the enslaved person both agency and responsibility as a subject of the law, not simply a legal object. (In the ancient world, a poor person could sell themselves into servitude to pay off debts or support their family. Jewish slaves were freed every sabbatical year, so the arrangement was temporary.)

In our story, an elderly man dyed his hair black, making him look younger so he could demand a higher price on the slave market. But when his new master asked him to bring him drinking water, the slave removed the black dye and revealed his true age. He then declared that because he is an elder, he is due respect and should be treated as a dependent, not a household staffer. This subversive story demonstrates both the injustice of a seller-slave who alters his appearance and essentially tricks the buyer into a bad deal, and the injustice of putting a price on a person, as if a person’s worth is defined by their production ability alone.

Read all of Bava Metzia 60 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 28th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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