Parshat Behar-Bechukotai – Ona’a Financial and Verbal Exploitation
Two types of repetition: emphasis and addition
Sometimes the Torah repeats a prohibition several times to emphasize the importance of the matter, so that we are exceedingly meticulous in its observance. Other times the repetition is the source of additional commandments that express other aspects.
This is the case of the laws of ona’a (rabbinic term) or hona’a (Torah term), often translated as oppression or injury. The Torah repeats the prohibition against oppressing the ger, convert or foreigner, three times, leading Chazal to conclude: “One who oppresses the ger transgresses three prohibitions. Chazal explain that this prohibition was meant to prevent a ger from returning to their wayward roots if they are offended, and that it’s inappropriate to mention another’s shortcomings if the same can be said of oneself, since all of Israel were foreigners in Egypt. The author of Sefer HaChinuch adds that beyond the importance of bringing more peace into the world, geirim are particularly vulnerable and therefore every person must remember “to constantly control our urges and restrain ourselves from the injury we are capable of inflicting.”
In addition to the verses that prohibit ona’at hager, the Torah prohibits two other types of ona’a, both found in Parshat Behar:
“When you sell property to your fellow or you buy from your fellow, one shall not exploit (ona’a) his brother. You shall buy from your fellow according to the years after the Jubilee, he will sell it to you according to the [remaining] harvest years. If there are many years you will raise its price, if there are few years you will lower its price because he is selling you the number of harvests. A person shall not exploit (ona’a) their fellow and you will fear your God, because I am the Lord your God. And you shall perform my statutes and observe my laws and you shall perform them and dwell on the land securely.”
Since the land reverts back to its original owner every fifty years the Torah cautions us not to exploit one another and to make sure the price of the land is commensurate with the number of harvests that remain until the Jubilee year. In addition, the Torah states “A person shall not exploit his fellow.” Chazal explain that this second rejoinder is not only a way to stress the importance of the prohibition, but also adds another prohibition. The first prohibition is that of ona’at mamon – financial exploitation – misrepresenting the price during a sale. The second is ona’at devarim – verbal exploitation or abuse – similar to the prohibition of ona’at ha’ger mentioned above.
What is ona’at mamon – financial exploitation?
Ona’at mamon is the purchase or sale of an object for a price that is significantly different from its market value. Chazal explain that a discrepancy of a ⅙ of the price is considered significant. The ⅙ can be calculated based on the market value or the sale price, so it includes a large range of prices. If the discrepancy is less than a ⅙ of either price then the sale is valid. If the discrepancy is exactly ⅙ the sale is valid but the party that benefited from the discrepancy is obligated to return the difference to the other, whether the seller sold the object for too high a price or the buyer bought it for too little. If the discrepancy is greater than ⅙ the sale may be altogether invalidated.
How is market value determined in a free market when objects are also priced based on where they are sold? We expect to pay more at the corner grocer than a large supermarket, and more still at a kiosk in an inaccessible area. Price varies from place to place, and even the same type of store will change the price of an item based on various business considerations or sales.
Therefore, some will claim that market value is determined based on the extremes of the spectrum, so ona’a only applies if the price deviates from the extremes or from the average. Alternatively, there are those that claim that in today’s market ona’a only applies if the same object in the same place is sold to different people at different prices. For example, someone who adjusts prices when they hear a foreign accent is guilty of ona’a.
What is ona’at devarim – abusive words?
According to the Talmudic sages the prohibition of ona’at devarim includes several types of speech:
“If donkey drivers ask for wine and oil, one may not say to them ‘Go to so-and-so’ who has never sold wine or oil. If someone was ill or afflicted or buried their children one may not say to them, as Iyov’s friends said to him, ‘Is your piety your source of confidence?…’ (i.e. you must have sinned to cause this misfortune.) R. Yehuda said one should also not raise another’s hopes and say to them ‘How much for this item?’ when they do not want to buy it. If one sees a ger, convert, who comes to learn Torah one may not say to them ‘Look who has come to learn Torah, one who has eaten treifot, neveilot, rodents, and critters (all manner of non-kosher animals).”
Ona’at devarim prohibits people from attacking one another’s most vulnerable places, whether it’s mentioning a possibly embarrassing past or suggesting their troubles are punishment for their sins or taking advantage of their ignorance to make them go out of their way.
Ona’at devarim vs. ona’at mamon
Rabbinic scholars debate the nature of ona’at mamon. Some see it as theft by deception, as a person pockets money that should not belong to them. The prophet Yechezkel mentions ona’a in this context, saying that an evildoer is, among other things, one who ‘exploits the poor and destitute, has stolen, taken collateral without returning.’ The exploitation of the poor is juxtaposed to theft and unlawful retention of collateral, two clear examples of someone taking money or objects that do not belong to them and indicating that ona’a is a type of theft or improper possession of another’s money.
According to the author of Sefer HaChinuch, “It is inappropriate to take money from another through lies or deception, rather through their own toil each person should earn what God has graced us with in His world truthfully and with integrity.” The difference between ona’a and other types of unlawful seizure of assets is that it is accomplished through deceit, when one of the parties misrepresents the price of an item.
It’s also possible that ona’at mamon is more closely related to the prohibition of ona’at devarim. As we saw, ona’at devarim prohibits exploiting another’s vulnerabilities. Naturally, the most vulnerable people in a society are foreigners and converts, who are susceptible because they are outsiders, and poor people, who do not have financial security that can protect them from various schemes. According to this explanation ona’at mamon would include exploiting someone in a weaker financial position who is desperate for the money from the sale, taking advantage of their desperation to buy wares at a significantly lower price than they are worth. Someone who sells an item for more than it’s worth because the buyer is desperate for the item would also be guilty of ona’at mamon. There’s no deceit in these cases, both the buyer and seller know the market value is significantly different than the sale price, but one party is exploiting the other’s vulnerabilities.
Let’s conclude with the Sefer HaChinuch’s words on the importance of this mitzvah:
This is useful for each and every person; just as one may not exploit others, others will not exploit them. And even if one person is more capable of deception than others, perhaps their children will not be and they will be deceived by people, and in the end it evens out. This is for the social good of the world’s inhabitants, and Hashem, blessed be He, created the world to be inhabited.
 Shemot 22:20, Vayikra 19:33, 25:17. TB Bava Metzia 59b.
 Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 63
 Vayikra 25:14-18
 Chazal explain that the prohibition of ona’a only applies to metaltalin (moveable objects) and not to land (TB Bava Metzia 56a-b). The original context is the sale of land, but what is actually sold is the produce, so it is metaltalin (see Rashbam on Vayikra 25:16).
 Mishna Bava Metzia 4:3-6, and see Rambam’s commentary there.
 So if a person sold something worth six shekels for five shekels or for seven shekels it’s a sixth, even though the one shekel is 20% of 5 shekels, 16.6% of 6 shekels and 14% of 7 shekels.
 Tosefta Bava Metzia 3:25
 Yechezkel 18:12
 Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 337