Texts and beliefs By Matt Plen 24th May 2019

As a rabbinical student living in New York City, I was often struck by the fact that non-Jewish politicians understood that the principle of kashrut applied both to the fitness of food and to the fitness of legislation. Listening to the news, it was not uncommon to hear lawmakers say things like ‘this deal isn’t kosher’. They understood that political and commercial arrangements must be ethical to be proper. 

Much of Behar addresses the ways Israelites are to conduct their financial lives in the Land of Israel, including: observance of the shmittah year, obligations to support the poor, the counting of the Omer, and the requirements of the jubilee year. The jubilee obliged all Israelites to return to their ancestral tribal lands and repurchase them from the current owners. 

The Torah warns against wronging one’s brother, ‘lo tonnu‘. First in Lev. 25:14 “When you sell property to your neighbour, or buy any from your neighbour, you shall not wrong one another.” And then three verses later: “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the LORD am your God.” (Lev. 25:17). The Sages believed that no two verses in the Torah mean the same thing. Therefore, they inferred that the prohibition of “lo tonnu” must refer to two separate kinds of fraud. 

The first prohibition, ona’at mamon, refers to fraud in commercial transactions. When buying and selling property, one must not cheat by over or undercharging. Regarding the jubilee, Rashi suggests the price of a property should be adjusted in relation to the land’s expected annual yield and the years remaining until the jubilee to avoid misrepresentation. By the rabbinic period the prohibition against ona’at mammon applied only to movable property. The Talmud’s (Bava Metzia 58b) classic example of ona’at mammon is the prohibition against asking a storekeeper the price of an object if the asker does not intend to buy it. This would raise the storekeeper’s expectations of a sale when the questioner has no such intention. The Talmud explains the second articulation of ‘lo tonnu‘ in verse 25:17 as verbal disparagement, ona’at devarim, including: reminding people who have repented of their past behaviour, reminding a convert of their past lifestyle or showing contempt for a convert who wants to study Torah. 

The Sages considered ona’at devarim to be more serious than ona’at mamon, explaining that the verse is predicated on the phrase, “and you shall fear the Lord your God,” which increases its severity. Whilst monetary fraud affects a person’s property, for which they can seek restitution, verbal disparagement affects a person’s reputation which cannot be recovered. What binds these two seemingly different areas of communication, the marketplace and everyday interaction, is that they prey upon a person’s vulnerability, whether considering a property’s true value or a person’s sensitivities. 

The prohibitions of ona’at mamon and ona’at devarim teach us to be as concerned with the integrity of what comes out of our mouths as the food we put in it. 

Rabbi Daniella Kolodny is a member of New North London Synagogue, and former Director of Rabbinical Development at Masorti Judaism.

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