Telephone Torah Study: How Bad is Bad Mouthing?
Proclaiming and protecting liberty is central to this week’s Torah portion, Behar (Lev. 25:1-26:2). To join in on the conference call on Thursday between 4pm-5pm, please dial 702-851-4044, when prompted punch in 2, then our pass code 22252#.
Badmouthing others is big news these days. On one end you have the tell-all celebrity gossip columns. They may not end careers, but they certainly lower our estimation of the people involved. On the other end of the scale we hear more and more of the fatal consequences of bullying, in person and via the internet. What many consider just normal neighborhood gossip has its deadly side.
The sages understood the power of words. We state in the morning prayers, “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world was.” God created the world through words. They also understood that words are dangerous.
The majority of Baba Metzia, chapter 3, is concerned with behavior known by the Hebrew termona’ah, generally translated as fraud or overreaching. There are a variety of ways in which merchants can deceive buyers or buyers can take advantage of sellers. The sages establish boundaries that protect both buyer and seller against such abuses.
Suddenly, about 2/3 of the way through the chapter, the mishnah extends this concept of ona’ah beyond the realm of business and applies it to interpersonal relationships. “Just as a claim ofona’ah applies to buying and selling, so does it apply to spoken words.” (B. Baba Metzia 58b). The examples offered by the mishnah describe the logic that carries this precept forward. One should not ask a merchant for details on merchandise you have no intention of buying because it misleads him. But then… One should not confront a repentant sinner with his past deeds nor a convert with his family’s pagan past. All of these are considered forms of verbal abuse.
Also, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, discusses economic ona’ah:
“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.
1. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family. (Lev. 25:10)
2. When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. (Lev. 25:14)
3. But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Lev. 25:23)