Talmidav Shel Aharon
11-5769: Mitzvah N-47-48
April 1, 2009
Negative Mitzvah 47– This is a negative commandment: Do not cheat one another in buying and selling.
Hafetz Hayim: This prohibition is derived from the verse, “and if you sell something … or buy something from your fellow’s hand, you shall not wrong one another” (Lev. 25:14). Whether a person cheated deliberately, or he did not know that there was an overcharge in this sale, he is duty bound to make compensation. This applies in every place and time, for both man and woman.
Negative Mitzvah 48- This is a negative commandment: Do not oppress one’s fellow-man with words.
Hafetz Hayim: Scripture says, “And you shall not wrong one another” (Lev.25:17). This means that we should not say to a penitent person, “Remember your original actions” or to the son of converts to Judaism, “Remember the behavior of your forefathers” or to ask a matter of wisdom from someone who does not know any wisdom, in order to distress him – and so any similar way of wronging him with words.
It seems that positive mitzvot are often not easily understood but the negative commandments are usually crystal clear. We have two similar mitzvot that pretty much seem to say exactly what they mean. Mitzvah 47 is the law that prevents cheating one another in business. In Western countries we have the notion of “buyer beware;” that buyers need to do their research and spend some time comparison shopping so that they get the best deal. A shopkeeper can ask any price and anyone too naive or unknowledgeable in buying and selling will find that they have been cheated. The only blame is on the buyer, not on the seller, who has the right to charge whatever he thinks the market will bear. Certainly there are laws that limit the shopkeeper from “bait and switch” and from selling defective or fraudulent goods, but under normal circumstances in the West, sellers can set the terms of the sale and if the buyer accepts them, then the sale is good and cannot be recalled. (Shopkeepers who have a liberal return policy are morally better but there is no law that forces them to be this way, only a “need” to keep the customer happy).
Jewish law is different. A shopkeeper has the right to earn a profit, but not an excessive one. If he has spiked a price to defraud a shopper or if he sells something at a price that turns out to be higher than reasonable, then the shopkeeper must return the overcharge. Judaism insists that we cannot take advantage of anyone.
In Mitzvah 48, we are reminded that we are forbidden to goad or ridicule our fellow human beings. I am reminded of a quote from the old movie, “Sweet Charity,” where the lead character says, “I can change the way I dress and I can change the way I talk but don’t ask me to change my past because the past is something I can’t change.” To remind a convict of his past behavior after he has served his time, is not only frustrating for the man, but causes him anguish that no matter what he may do to repent, the rest of the world will never forgive him. The same holds true for a convert. We are forbidden to remind a convert of his or her life before the conversion. How can a person feel like they are part of the Jewish people if someone is constantly reminding them of their former life?
The third example cited is a bit different. Here the simple man is taunted by another who asks him a question that everyone knows he cannot answer. This only serves to highlight his ignorance. It is not only rude; it is hurtful and causes embarrassment. Embarrassment is considered to be a kind of “murder” which causes the blood to drain out of a person’s face leaving it as white as death.
This kind of speech has so many different possibilities that the law cannot list them all. Any kind of hurtful speech, speech that is meant to hurt, embarrass, or goad another person, even if the topic is true, is forbidden by Jewish Law. The Mitzvah is to be sensitive to the feelings of others
It is interesting that the Mitzvah is for selling and buying.That is to say that if one realizes that one is selling an object for less than its worth, that person is forbidden from taking advantage of the sale, and at the least must inform the seller that the good/service is worth more. We see this with Abraham and the sale of Machpelah.