Business or speech, one must not hurt another

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — Included among the agricultural laws in Parashat B’har is the verse: “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God.” (Lev. 25:17)

Although in context this verse refers to the fair amount to pay for the purchase of land during the Jubilee cycle, the sages expanded it to include all business transactions. Ona’ah, “wronging one another,” is defined as overcharging a buyer or seller by one-sixth or more of the fair market value of an item. If such an overcharge or undercharge takes place, the transaction may be cancelled.
Our sages went on to further extend the concept of ona’ah, “wronging one another,” from business transactions to speech. The Talmud says: “Just as there is a prohibition against exploitation [ona’ah] in buying and selling, so there is ona’ah in statement, i.e., verbal mistreatment…If one is a penitent, another may not say to him: Remember your earlier deeds….” (TB Bava Metzia, 58B, Steinsaltz translation and commentary)
This can be understood as an extension of the general prohibition against lashon harah, spreading gossip and libel. Judaism rejects the notion that words are harmless. Words can cut and wound just as grievously as a weapon. Although the wounds are psychological and unseen does not mean that they do not fester.
Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (1100’s) wrote that ona’ah with words is far worse than ona’ah in a business transaction. He said that if a person is overcharged, it hurts only their pocket and restitution can make things right. When it comes to wounding someone with words, restitution is not possible. Even if the offender apologizes, how is his victim to repair his broken heart?

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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