Overcharging

Commercial life involves human interactions as well as material enrichment. Both are important, but which is the means and which the end?

Chamor and Shekhem view human interaction as a means to material enrichment. They urge their subjects to befriend Yaakov’s family and allow them to trade (Bereshit 34:21) – but their goal is to become enriched with their possessions (34:23).

Yaakov Avinu exhibits the opposite attitude. He too values material possessions – after all, he returns to the camp in the middle of the night merely to retrieve some small jugs (Rashi on 32:25, see Chullin 91a). But the purpose of all his wealth is “To find favor in my lord’s eyes” (33:8) – to increase peace and brotherhood.

This distinction is perceptible in the laws of overcharging (onaah). The halakha demands fair dealing with non-Jews as well as Jews, but there is a difference. Regarding commerce with non-Jews, the rule is that we may never cheat or mislead them. (SA CM 228:6, 348:2, and see Be’er HaGolah.) Commerce in the secular culturewe share with non-Jews is mainly a means to the end of the comforts of life, and so such commerce is proper as long as it is honest and productive.

However, when dealing with Jews a higher standard applies. Any price which is more than one-sixth away from the going market price is considered unfair, and gives the overcharged customer (or underpaid merchant) the right to annul the sale. (SA CM 227.) Striking a bargain always requires a “meeting of the minds” (da’atmakneh and da’at koneh), but the law of overcharging, onaah, seems to demand an even higher level of mutual understanding.

We may explain that in commerce with our fellow Jews, such agreement is an end in itself. Obviously, we Jews have more important things to agree on than the price of trinkets, but it is always important to increase understanding among brothers – even commercial understanding! (Based on Likutei Halakhot Breslav, Laws ofOnaah 2:2.)

Viewing commerce as a means to fellowship can help us explain the surprising term the Torah uses to describe overcharging. The word “onaah” usually means “oppression” or “anguishing”. If I seek a fair deal with a merchant and he takes advantage of me, I feel cheated. But if I seek a meaningful relationship with a friendand he takes advantage of me, I feel anguished.

An interesting Midrash Halakha parallels this approach. The overcharging prohibition is learned from the verse, “And when you sell to your fellow or buy from your fellow, do not oppress each other”. (Vayikra 25:14.) Rashi, based on Sifra, explains: “How do we learn that when we sell, we should only sell to our fellow Jew?From ‘And when you sell – [sell] to your fellow!’ And how do we learn that when we buy, we should buy only from our fellow Jew? From ‘or buy – from your fellow!’”

This Midrash reinforces the message that we perceived in the prohibition on overcharging: that there is a special value in enhancing human contact and understanding among Jews in the marketplace.

When commerce exploits human agreements to increase wealth, then both humans and wealth are degraded. But when commerce exploits wealth to increase human understanding, then both are ennobled. This is the Torah ideal.