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Short-Changed (Behar)

The following are some quick thoughts on Behar, the first of this week’s two Parshahs.


Near the beginning of Parshat Behar lies the prohibition against ona’at mammon, i.e. exploitative business practices:

“And when you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, you shall not exploit one another” (Lev. 25:15).

The details of this prohibition are discussed at length in the fourth chapter of the Talmudic tractate Bava Metzia. There, Chazal focus considerable attention upon the economic principle of caveat emptor: “buyer beware.” Seeking to protect traders from the information asymmetry that often imbalances markets, our sages granted both consumers and vendors a limited window of time in which they could void the transaction of goods sold above or below 1/6th their going rate. This right applies not only to typical merchandise, like livestock, produce and textiles, but also to coinage. Thus, with respect to currency exchanges, the Mishnah states:

Until when is it permitted to return [an undervalued coin?] In the cities: until he has had enough time to show it to a money-changer. In the villages: until the eve of the Sabbath (Bava Metzia 52a).

The Gemara elaborates:

Most people cannot be certain what the value of a coin is; only a money- changer [can properly assess its value]. Therefore: In the cities, where there is a money-changer present, [the consumer’s right to void the transaction lasts] until he’s had enough time to show it to a money-changer. In the villages, where there is no money-changer present, he has until the eve of Sabbath, when people go to the market (Bava Metzia 52b).

And finally, Rashi adds:

         “Go to the market”—to purchase their Sabbath needs (ibid).

What a fascinating halachah! The upshot of our Mishnah, if we read it as Rashi and the Gemara do, is that a villager’s right to return undervalued coinage is somehow connected with his Shabbat observance. Why should that be?

The Rambam offers the simplest answer:

Not everybody recognizes [the true value] of coins. Therefore, they granted him [i.e. the consumer] time to show it to the money-changer. And if he lived in a village, they gave him until the eve of Sabbath, for that is when people come into the markets, and then he could show it to the money-changer [lit: “the one who recognizes it”—c.f. Hil. Mechirah 12:11] (Rambam’s commentary to Bava Metzia 4:6).

The Bartenura, meanwhile, proposes a slightly different interpretation:

When he comes [to the market] on the eve of Sabbath looking to spend it [i.e. his coin] on the needs of Sabbath, then he will know if it is possible to spend it, if [the market vendors] will accept it from him (Bartenura’s commentary to Bava Metzia 4:6).

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Mishnaic coins

In fact, both explanations are based upon the same legal principle—namely, that a consumer’s right to void a transaction lasts as long as is reasonably required for him to determine if he has been exploited. The Rambam and the Bartenura differ merely on the question of how our villager is most likely to make this discovery. For the Rambam, the discovery occurs when the villager has his coins professionally appraised; for the Bartenura, it occurs when he attempts to spend them. For neither, in other words, does the “purchasing of Sabbath needs” directly determine the villager’s deadline for claiming financial redress. “Purchasing of Sabbath needs” is relevant only as the impetus for bringing our villager into the marketplace, where he will then have his coins appraised, or attempt to spend them.

Now, that is all and well—but the deadline for villagers to recover losses incurred through ona’ah remains, formally, the “eve of Sabbath.” The fact is that Chazal established this deadline because they expected that villagers would travel to the market each week to purchase their Shabbat needs—a fact disputed by neither the Rambam nor the Bartenura. And while both the Rambam and the Bartenura make it clear that, halachically (legally/jurisprudentially) speaking, the financial rights due our villager are not actually conditioned upon his Shabbat observance, the underlying relationship between economic exploitation and Shabbat preparations attested by our Mishnah is hashkafically (philosophically/theologically) noteworthy in its own right.

To that end, we must recall that the author of our Mishnah was not the first to overlay the motif of Shabbat upon the prohibition of price-gouging. Indeed, the Biblical source for that prohibition, recorded in this week’s Parshah, arrives in a section of the Torah devoted almost exclusively to the theme of Shabbat:

And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest (ושבת) a Sabbath (שבת) to the Lord. You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, but in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete Sabbath (שבת שבתון), a Sabbath (שבת) to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest, and you shall not pick the grapes you had set aside [for yourself], [for] it shall be a year of Sabbath (שבת) for the land. And [the produce of] the Sabbath (שבת) of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you, all of its produce may be eaten [also] by your domestic animals and by the beasts that are in your land.

And you shall count for yourself seven sabbatical (שבתות) years, seven years seven times. And the days of these seven sabbatical (שבתות) years shall amount to forty nine years for you. And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family. This fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee for you shall not sow, nor shall you reap its aftergrowth or pick that you had set aside. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy for you; you shall eat its produce from the field. During this jubilee year, you shall return, each man to his property.

And when you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, you shall not exploit one another. According to the number of years remaining until the jubilee shall you purchase [land] from your fellow, corresponding to the number of years of crops he is selling to you. If [there remain] many years you shall raise its price and if [there remain] few years you shall lower its price, because it is [effectively] a number of harvests that he is selling you. You shall not exploit your fellow; and you shall fear your God, for I the Lord am your God (Lev. 25:1-16).

Overall, “Shabbat terminology” (שבת, שבתון, שבתות, ושבתה) appears ten times in the span of the Parshah’s fifty-seven verses. This terminology serves to link the weekly Shabbat with a new kind of Shabbat—“the Shabbat of years.” Of the weekly Shabbat, the Torah states: “Six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and the soul of your maidservant’s son and of the stranger shall be refreshed” (Exod. 23:12); “The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you” (Deut. 5:14). Similarly, the “year of Shabbat,” instituted in this week’s Parshah, offers rest to the land (Lev. 25:1) and, in due course, freedom for indentured servants as well (ibid. 10).

Put differently, then, the Shabbat—in all its manifold expressions, and among all its other virtues—is, in fact, one of the Torah’s most important instruments of economic regulation. As the legislative bulwark against overburdening our employees or overtaxing our means of production, it offers a most appropriate context for the law against overcharging our customers. Hence the association of these laws within our Parshah; and hence, perhaps, their association in our Mishnah.

A villager who refrains from traveling to the market by the end of the week may no longer return coins that were sold to him below market rate. Technically, this is because he squandered his opportunity to consult the vendor (per the Bartenura) or the money-changer (per the Rambam) regarding the true worth of his coins. On a deeper level, however, the reason is exactly as intimated by our Mishnah and by Rashi: the villager cedes his claim of ona’ah because he has allowed the eve of Shabbat to pass without purchasing the goods he needs in order to celebrate Shabbat. This is not a trivial consideration as far as economic halachah is concerned. Quite the contrary: by failing to arrange for the appropriate observance of Shabbat, our villager actually undermines the very institutions established for his economic protection. If he does not honor Shabbat as is required of him—if he does not respect societal reforms which enshrine economic justice on behalf of the disadvantaged and the vulnerable—then, unwittingly, he removes himself from the regulatory system which he himself relies upon. And, so, his consequence is commensurate with his conduct—not as a penalty, but as a natural and inevitable outcome. Our villager neglected to devote his erev Shabbat—1/6th of his workweek—preparing for a day that guards against one kind of economic exploitation. As a result, he forfeits his ability to discover, and thus to recover, the 1/6th of his funds which he lost to economic exploitation of another kind.

Shabbat is Hashem’s eternal gift to us. When we undervalue this gift, then we, like our villager, are ultimately short-changing ourselves—perhaps more than we even realize. By honoring Shabbat, on the other hand, we place Hashem at the center of our economy and remind ourselves, weekly, to value time above money, collaboration above competition, and ethics above earnings. And though its observance requires us to divest, temporarily, from our pursuit of commercial gain, the divestment is well worth it—for when all the books have been balanced, we will surely find that it is our spiritual investments, not our material ones, which yield the highest returns.

Shabbat shalom!


2 Comments

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thank you for your amazing essay. I loved the connections you drew. Have an amazing day and Shabbat Shalom!

  2. Ephrayim Naiman says:

    Cool 1/6th connections! (It could also work מלגו or מלבר – you could turn this into 1/7 to include Shabbos)

    And it also adds a nice gashmi/economical/societal angle to: לקראת שבת לכו ונלכה – כי היא מקור הברכה!

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