Torah True Market Value

I've been meaning to post the following piece since I read it last week, but I was very involved with magazine layout on top of finishing the round of essay scoring. But better late than not at all, for it is an idea that is always relevant.

In his commentary on Parshas Behar, the Abarbanel brings out an important point about the price set on a field sold. The price should be higher if there are more years until the yovel than if there are fewer years, for the purchaser is really paying according to the the field's yield. That the text says "velo tonoo ish es amitho"[one should not oppress his fellow], the Abarbanel says is a warning to the wealthy buyer who holds the advantage over the poor seller who is forced by circumstances into a situation of having no recourse other than selling his estate. Given the seller's desperation, the buyer could take advantage in naming his own price. So the Torah warns him to not to do the hona'a . The buyer is not supposed to make a killing at the expense of the desperate seller, but to fear G-d, the One who holds the ultimate power over the heights of wealth or depths of poverty. "mashpil af meromem umekimi meafar dal" And he says, "I am the Hashem, your G-d; all is within my hands like the clay in hands of the craftsman."
The Abarbanel adds the following: "It appears to me that lo tonoo is not a mitzvah but a hoda'a [notification or warning] " not to fall into hona'a [oppression] in the situation where the price depends on the number of yields until the yovel.

The Abarbanel's point is that even though one can claim that capitalism gives him the right to get the best price he can, and that to take advantage of another's circumstances to achieve that end is quite correct, The Torah view is different. And there is a warning for these cases when one can claim to be acting within his legal rights -- after all price is determined by what the market will bear and if someone needs to sell immediately, he'll just have to accept what I offer him -- but knows that there is an element of unfairness here -- that the prices should be a straight calculation of yield. True, you could get away with a lower price and pat yourself on the back for getting a bargain, but that is not what real fear of G-d is about. G-d does not want you to show you're the bigger macher, but to deal in business with fairness and even compassion. What a radical notion! And should you say that such a notion smacks of communism, I would answer that placing that label on it does not prove it wrong. All -isms have their flaws, including capitalism and communism, which is why they cannot be embraced as our absolute standard for behavior. The only absolute standard is the Torah.

But this is not just and abstract idea. On a practical level, I find it appalling how Jews who consider themselves very observant and G-d-fearing throw all scruples out the window when it comes to business dealings. They get things so crooked that they seem to believe that it is a mitzvah to cheat another (Jew) or to keep back payment way past its due date and give the debtor a guilt trip for calling repeatedly for the money. In the very same breath, they could boast about their vast holdings and say they don't have money to spare to pay what they agreed to pay you in the first place. They would never consider themselves thieves, but practicing hona'a is considered good business and proof of your alpha macher status.


SephardiLady said…
Seems that as long as a businessman gives large sums of tzedakah, his practices are to be forgiven. Form shame.

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