Fairness In The Marketplace

The rabbinic understanding of commerce laws in Behar focuses on ensuring that consumers have access to market information.

Commentary on Parashat Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2

“When you sell property to your neighbor or buy property from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.” (Leviticus 25:14)

The Hebrew for wronging is ona’ah, which in other contexts seems to mean the exploitation of a weaker party by a stronger. The rabbis apply this verse to a common “wronging” in business, deceptive overcharge. The limit of overcharge deemed legitimate is one-sixth the market value. For example, if a jeweler deliberately raised the price of an object with a clear market value so the overcharge was over one-sixth the market designated price, then the sale can be invalidated.

Ona’ah protects the seller as well. If a mistake occurred, and the seller sold an object for more than one-sixth below the designated market price, then he has the right, within a certain time limit, to void the sale and recover the object.

If you announce up front that you are overcharging, then it’s not ona’ah. Ona’ah only applies to an overcharge when the buyer or the seller, unaware of the market price, is unknowingly duped. When disclosed, any price is fair. However, if the commodity in question is a basic life necessity, then even if the overcharge is disclosed it is deemed ona’ah and is recoverable.

Ona’ah teaches that business ought not prey upon the naivete of a buyer. The less the buyer knows about the product and its fair value, the greater the danger the seller will violate ona’ah. On a larger scale, ona’ah might require a public policy of full disclosure of the market prices of basic commodities. At the very least, it affirms that consumer awareness and equal access to market information are central to the fairness of the marketplace.

Reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.


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