Reprinted with permission from Ethics in the Market Place: A Jewish Perspective, published by The Library of Jewish Law, 2000.
In Jewish law, consumer protection is rooted in prohibitions against overreaching and misrepresentation, regulation of weights and measures, and enactments for the prevention of unfair price increases and profiteering.
The Bible (Leviticus 25:14-17) contains a prohibition against ona’ah — fraudulent pricing or overreaching:
“And if you sell anything to your neighbor or buy of your neighbor’s hand, you shall not wrong one another. According to the number of years after the jubilee shall you buy of your neighbor, and according to the number of years of the crops he shall sell to you. According to the multitude of the years shall you increase the price thereof, and according to the fewness of the years you shall diminish the price of it; for a number of crops does he sell to you. And you shall not wrong one another; but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.”
Elsewhere (Deuteronomy 25:13-16), the Bible discusses weights and measures:
“You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a great and a small. You shall not have in your house diverse measures, a great and a small. A perfect and just measure shall you have; that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you. For all that do such things, even all that do unrighteously, are an abomination to the Lord your God.”
Amos (8:4-7), too, prophesied concerning those of his contemporaries who engaged in unfair market practices:
“Hear this, 0 you that would swallow the needy, and destroy the poor of the land, saying: ‘When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, that we may set forth corn, making the efah [a measure for grain] small and the shekel [measure for silver] great and falsifying the balances of deceit; that we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes, and sell the refuse of the corn?’ The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds!’”
The seriousness of overreaching and profiteering was emphasized by the sages of the Talmud in their exposition of the passage from Amos:
“Concerning those who hoard fruit, lend money for interest, reduce the measures and raise prices, Scripture says, ‘When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath that we may set forth corn? Making the efah small and the shekel great and falsifying the balances of deceit.’ And [concerning these] it is further written in Scripture, ‘The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds!’”
The Talmud quotes Rabbi Levi [a third-century sage from the Land of Israel] as declaring that “punishment for [false] measures is more rigorous than for forbidden sexual relations.” This severity, the Talmud explains, derives from the fact that when a merchant consistently uses false measures, he is unable to repent for his wrongdoing, since he can never know the identity of all those he has wronged and therefore cannot make restitution.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.