Deceptive business practices and geneivat da'at - Matan - The Sadie Rennert

Deceptive business practices and geneivat da’at Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Iyar 5783 | May 2023

Topic : halakha , Shayla ,


I rent out vacation apartments through websites. Am I allowed to rent out an apartment if I changed all the bed linens except for the duvet cover between guests, and only wash the duvet cover every few guests? Or is this a type of geneivat da’at (deception), since the guests think that everything has been freshly cleaned on their behalf?


Prefer to see for yourself? You’re invited to open the source sheet on Sefaria, learn, discuss, and then return for our teshuva. What would you answer?

First I would like to commend you. It’s said that Rabbi Yisrael of Salant was upset that people would often come for questions bein Adam la’Makom (between a person and God), but comparatively few would ask about interpersonal mitzvot. Your question shows that you understand that sometimes shortcuts that are possible from a business perspective are not permitted from a halakhkic one, which is unfortunately not clear to all.

There are a number of aspects to your question. There are halakhot that prohibit vendors from deceiving potential customers about the product – part of this concerns geneivat da’at, which you mentioned, but in business there is also the concern of ona’a or hona’a, exploitation.[1] Your question makes it clear that you are careful with your halakhic observance, and it’s therefore important that you understand the basics of these laws in general, as well as the specific answer to your question.


Ona’at mamon – exploitive business dealings

Halakha prohibits two types of ona’a – ona’at mamon, financial exploitation through price gouging or misrepresentation and ona’at devarim, verbal abuse or exploitation, which is defined as speech that harms another. When discussing selling land for the duration of time until the Jubilee year the Torah teaches, “A person may not exploit their brother… A person may not exploit their fellow, and you shall fear/revere your God, I am the Lord your God.”[2] In certain circumstances ona’at mamon may require returning the price difference and can even invalidate the transaction.

Aruch HaShulkhan has a slightly different distinction, based on his understanding that ona’a is a form of gezeila, theft. Ona’a b’mekach is any time the sale price does not match the market price, whether one of the parties misrepresents the product or the market price, and ona’a about any aspect of the product, such as quality or source – even if this deception does not affect the price.[3] As we will see, the latter is generally considered a form of geneivat da’at. The overlap between the two is sometimes unclear, depending on one’s definition of ona’a.

When does a business transaction violate ona’at mamon?

The minimum value of ona’at mamon is one pruta, and this applies to both the seller and buyer equally.[4] The rabbis discuss the halakhic repercussions of a difference of a shtut, ⅙, between the market value and sale price, and there is some question if a difference of less than ⅙ is also prohibited.[5] Based on the Rosh there are some authorities who rule that people who are God fearing should also be careful about differences of less than ⅙ – not to profit from such a discrepancy, but also to forgive anyone who profits off them for under ⅙.[6]

Ona’a applies to both sales and rentals, as rentals are temporary sales. Halakhic authorities dispute whether it applies to mikarka’in – land or real estate. Based on Chazal, Shulchan Aruch rules it does not apply to land.[7] Ramban claims that the concept “there is no ona’a regarding land” means that ona’a does not invalidate the sale and the price difference does not have to be returned, nevertheless, there is still a prohibition.[8] In any event, ona’a applies to renting objects, and Smag explains that anything that is not attached to the ground is considered an object – so even though the apartment itself is land, the items inside that are rented for use are definitely subject to ona’a.

People generally rent vacation apartments based on pictures, descriptions, and reviews, and much of these reviews discuss cleanliness. Many people will pay significantly more for places that are highly rated or described as especially clean. If an apartment is filthy the value is significantly diminished, perhaps enough to be considered ona’at mamon of a ⅙ or more.

What if the apartment isn’t filthy but doesn’t seem clean? Or the host cuts corners when cleaning? Many people would assume that there’s no issue of ona’at mamon in this case because duvet covers that have not been freshly laundered would not affect the price for ⅙ of the difference in price, or because they consider this to be foremost a real estate issue. But we saw, Rosh rules any price difference of more than a pruta violates ona’at mamon, even if it doesn’t invalidate the sale or have to be repaid. Even if we don’t accept the Rosh’s ruling, we saw that Aruch HaShulchan maintains that any misrepresentation of a product’s quality is a violation of ona’a.[9] Aruch HaShulchan also rules ona’at mekach applies to contractors who are hired to do a specific job – which could apply here when the host is in essence contracted to clean the accommodations, and this would include the duvet covers.[10]

Ona’at devarim

Shulchan Aruch brings the laws of ona’at mamon in Choshen Mishpat 227, and afterward in 228 he discusses the laws of ona’at devarim. The definition of ona’at devarim is complicated – Chazal bring a number of examples of different things a person might say to cause pain to another.[11] The laws of ona’at devarim apply to business dealings, and in general to all interpersonal interactions.[12] Shulchan Aruch connects these laws to those of geneivat da’at and the prohibition against deceptive business dealings.

According to Shulchan Aruch: “It is forbidden to deceive another in trade or ‘steal their knowledge.’ For example, if the merchandise is flawed one must inform the client, even if they’re not Jewish. One may not sell them neveila meat (meat from a kosher animal without kosher slaughtering) as if it is shechuta (properly ritually slaughtered).[13] The buyer must be aware of anything that will diminish the value of the product so they have all the information to decide if they want to buy it at that price.

Be’er Hei-Tev adds that even if the information is irrelevant to the buyer and it does not affect the price the buyer must be informed of things; otherwise, one is guilty of deceptive marketing.[14] This is where issues of ona’a segue into geneivat da’at. For example, even if there is no difference in price or quality between Italian and Greek olive oil, one may not present one as the other.

The prohibition of geneivat da’at

So the first question is how are you presenting the property? If you claim that the apartment has been cleaned or the bed linens changed then obviously all this must be true, down to the duvet cover.

But even if you don’t describe cleaning or specifically mention bed linens there are a number of halakhic reasons to obligate either changing all bed linens or an explicit disclosure that they have not been cleaned.

Firstly, the laws of geneivat da’at are not limited to deceptive statements, they encompass the entire impression that is given. Therefore it’s forbidden to say things that could be interpreted in multiple ways or skip over any flaws in the product.[15] Additionally, one may not make cosmetic changes to the product to give an impression that it is better than it is – such as freshly making a bed to make it look as though the bed linens have been laundered.

A generally clean and tidy rental gives the impression that everything has been cleaned.[16] Furthermore, the gemara and poskim indicate that general societal norms and business practices influence a consumer’s expectations – and the vendor’s halakhic obligations. One may not market a product that does not reach these standards without clearly informing any potential buyers.[17]

One might claim that many guests are aware that there are places that do not clean thoroughly, especially bed linens. According to Shulchan Aruch deceptive cosmetic improvements are prohibited, so a butcher may not soak meat in water so that it appears white and fatty. Later poskim comment that if the public is aware that “everyone” does this, and it is standard practice, then it is permitted.[18] In my humble opinion, even though many people have lower cleanliness expectations, it’s certainly not “everyone,” and so this is not a sufficient reason to be lenient with cleanliness standards.

In addition to the consumer’s expectations, a vendor has to follow certain rules and regulations – whether they’re imposed by the government or a business acting as a broker between the vendor and customer. Some websites that advertise vacation properties have their own regulations. For example, Airbnbn has cleanliness standards that include fresh bed linens. Some countries have laws for such rentals. In Israel the Health Ministry obligates hosts to wash towels and bed linens as necessary – in detergent or bleach. This adds an element of “dina d’malkhuta dina” –  the halakhic obligation to follow the local civil laws (with some exceptions). Even though there’s some debate, many modern poskim rule that “dina d’malkhuta” applies to the State of Israel in particular, and democratic countries in general, at least when it comes to laws concerning social and business interactions.[19]

Beyond the civil obligations, these regulations also relate to the previous matter – social norms, customer expectations, and the vendor’s halakhic obligation to uphold these standards or clearly inform the client otherwise.[20]


In my humble opinion, you would need to clearly inform potential customers that they are responsible for cleaning and changing the bed linens if you don’t want to change them all, including the duvet cover, between guests.

However, I understand that this is time-consuming and sometimes unnecessary; sometimes renters do not use the duvet or its cover. Therefore I’m going to suggest a course of action that is both halakhically acceptable and may save you unnecessary work. It’s possible to make the bed with fresh bed linens without the duvet, using the bottom sheet, pillow case, and maybe a top sheet. The duvet can be left in a closet and the cover can be on it or on the bed. You can expect a guest who wants to use the blanket will cover the duvet. At the end of their stay anything untouched and folded in the closet does not have to be washed, anything outside does.

It seems this is standard practice – either not to cover the duvet or not to wash bed linens that appear untouched, such as towels and pillowcases on spare pillows that remain in the closet. Personally, I once stayed in a place where some of the beds were unmade and the duvets were uncovered. My friend complained about laziness, but I was happy because I believed it increased the likelihood that all the linens were washed.

When Sefer HaChinuch explains this mitzvah he implies that beyond the importance of the social contract, one who does not cut corners and earns their money with integrity reaffirms their belief that ultimately our sustenance is provided by God.[21]

Your question clearly displays a deep understanding of this idea. May you be blessed to embody the words of Mishlei:

“Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them to your throat and write them on the tablet of your heart. Find favor and good counsel in the eyes of God and people. Have faith in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your understanding. Know Him in all your ways and He will smooth your path… Honor the Lord more than your wealth and the first of your produce; your barns will be filled with grains and your vats bursting with wine.”[22]


[1] The Torah uses the term hona’a, the rabbinic term is ona’a

[2] Vayikra 25: 14, 17

[3] Aruch HaShulchan Chosen Mishpat 227:1. For example, ona’at b’mekach refers to things like representing old furniture as new, double beds as king size, or a filthy property as clean. These factors create a significant price difference. But if the misrepresentation is not as severe, such as when the property is generally clean but you have cut corners, it is unlikely to be considered ona’at mamon, but Aruch HaShulchan still deems it a form of ona’a.

[4]  The seller is not allowed to exploit the buyer’s ignorance of the market value of the product and sell it for more than it’s worth, and the buyer is not allowed to purposely lower the price because the seller does not know the value of their product. Some rule that ona’a does not apply if both sides know the value of the product and for some reason agree on a price that does not represent market value. Of course, at times the reason for the agreement is exploitive, so it’s preferable to ask a halakhic question.

The value of a pruta is calculated based on the value of silver, and today is around 10 agorot.

[5] The ⅙ is calculated stringently, meaning if the difference in value is ⅙ of the market price or of the price paid. For example:

If the market price is 6 NIS then a difference of 1 NIS is ona’a:

  • Buyer violates ona’a if they paid 5 NIS.
  • Seller violates ona’a if the buyer paid 7 NIS (even though the 1 NIS difference is less than ⅙ of 7 NIS).

If the market price is 5 NIS and the buyer paid 6 NIS:

  • Seller violated ona’a because the 1 NIS difference is ⅙ of the price paid.

If the market price is 7 NIS and the buyer paid 6 NIS:

  • Buyer violated ona’a because the 1 NIS difference is ⅙ of the price paid (even though it’s not ⅙ of the market value).

If the difference is exactly ⅙ it must be returned to the wronged party. Above that the sale is invalidated and the wronged party can choose between exchanging back or just receiving the difference in price.

[6] Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 227:6, Tur in the name of Rosh there, Be’er HeTev, Aruch HaShulchan, and Chatam Sofer.

[7] Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 227:29, 32

[8] Ramban on the Torag Vayikra 25, Me’irat Einayim Choshen Mishpat 227:51 brings Maharshal, Rabbi Akiva Eiger ibid 19

[9] Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 227:35; Sefer Mitzvot Gadol Asin 82:1

[10] Aruch HaShulchan Choshen Mishpat 227:39

[11] TB Bava Metzia 58b. The list includes things like asking the price of an item one isn’t interested in buying, mentioning a convert’s background, commenting to someone who is suffering that they should examine their actions, and taking advantage of someone else’s ignorance to cause them or others to work unnecessarily or to be embarrassed. There’s some discussionabout what these things have in common. For more see Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg’s post on Parshat Behar.

[12] Aruch HaShulchan Choshen Mishpat 228:1

[13] Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 228:6

[14] ibid; Aruch HaShulchan ibid

[15] Pitchei Choshen 358

[16] If there is a “cleaning fee” then unchanged bed linens are an even more serious halakhic problem.

[17] ibid 228:9

[18] Me’irat Einayim Choshen Mishpat 228:16

[19] Some poskim would not apply “dina d’malkhuta dina” to this situation – such as those that rule that it does not apply to the State of Israel and only to gentile rulers. Such opinions are based on the Ran and Rashba on Nedarim 28a who explain that the residents must obey the local sovereign as this is the condition for their permission to live on their land. It seems that this would also apply to democratic countries outside of Israel, but since the Land of Israel belongs to the entirety of the Jewish people, a Jew is allowed to live there even if they don’t obey the current government.

Many other poskim explain “dina d’malkhuta” in a way that applies to the modern State of Israel. (For example: Rashbam Bava Batra 54b “v’ha’amar Shmuel”; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 369:6; Tzitz Eliezer 16:49-50) Many explain that the government’s authority stems from the public’s acceptance, and if the general public obeys the local government then every Jew is obligated to as well – even in Israel. Since this idea was originally applied to monarchies, it’s  even more applicable to democratically elected governments.

This is just one of many explanations that lead to the same conclusion. For more see Tzitz Eliezer I Sha’ar 3 Chapter 6 for a thorough discussion of the issues.


[21] Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 337 “The root of this mitzvah is well known, it’s logical and even if the law was unwritten it should be written, because it is improper to take money from a person through lies and deceit. Each person should work honestly and with integrity to earn what God has bequeathed us in His world.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.”

[22] Mishlei 3:3-6, 9-10

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.

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