Parashat Behar:different kinds of deception and the obligation to avoid them

In sidra Behar we find the source texts for the prohibitions against two different kinds of deception – ona’at mammon and ona’at devarim. The verb ona’ah literally means “to overreach”, and describes the act of wronging another by selling an article for more than its real worth, or conversely, by purchasing an article for less than its real worth.

              The proscription is based on the verse in this sidra (25:14) “when you sell anything to your neighbour, or buy anything from your neighbour, you shall not deceive one another”. Talmud (Baba Metzia 49b) specifies what level of price variation is valid and what is not. For the merchants among us, it is deemed permissible to make a fair profit (seen as charging less than one sixth above the accepted price), but it is not permissible to overcharge and deceive a customer.
              The ban on verbal deception arises from a statement three verses later where we read (25:17) “Do not deceive one another but fear your God, for I the Eternal am your God”. Since the previous verse explicitly mentions monetary deception, the rabbis decided that this verse must refer to another kind of fraud – that of verbal dishonesty. The Mishnah (Baba Metzia 4:10) tells us “Just as there is deception in buying and selling, so too there is deception in words”
              The example that is given is the raising of the expectations of the merchant that he has a sale when the person posing as a buyer has no intention of such a transaction, something I suspect we may all have been guilty of doing, when we look at an item on the High Street but then go on to buy it on the internet at a discounted rate. But of course verbal dishonesty is a great deal more than the behaviour of people around a transaction and I find it curious that the Talmudic tradition stayed so close to the mercantile metaphors.

               Verbal dishonesty is so ingrained a habit in our behaviours that we can often barely notice it, from the telling of “little white lies” through to being “economical with the actualite” in an effort to stave off embarrassment or worse. We have all learned to speak “diplomatically” or “tactically” or “strategically”. We can hide behind many a circumlocution in order not to say what should really be honestly and transparently available to the people with whom we “do business”.

I am not suggesting we all suddenly become aficionados of what is sometimes called “blunt speaking” – that is another way in which we can bludgeon the other into not taking on board the whole meaning. I am however suggesting that we look seriously at how we communicate with each other, at what we choose to communicate and to whom. To hear second or third hand about a matter that is important to you; to be the subject of gossip or speculation – even to be forced into issuing public denials; to be told that “people are saying about you…” rather than “I think…”; these are all forms of verbal dishonesty that do more than to raise expectations unfairly qua the Mishnah – they are forms of dishonesty that start to destroy the soul of the people deceived and of the people deceiving.

We are in the Omer period, a time of reflection and sombre thoughtfulness before Shavuot when we will celebrate the giving of Torah. Sidra Behar actually refers back in time to the words that Moses was given by God on Mount Sinai – in particular the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Matters or Words sometimes called the Ten Commandments. Now would be a good time to examine ourselves and our behaviour in the light of the prohibition against ona’at Devarim – the use of words to deceive each other.    

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