The Challenge of Wealth
By Dr. Meir Tamari
RESPONSA - CHUKAT.
Advertising is a form of competition and therefore it has to be examined to
see whether it is moral. This eliminates false advertising. However, there
is advertising that takes unfair advantage of other competitors. The most
common form of such competition is the advertising of benefits or gifts to
be earned by purchasing the goods or services offered. The extent of this
non- price competition is only limited by the ingenuity of the seller. The
halakhic problem with this form of competition is to determine whether the
other non advertising merchants have acquired a property right in their
customer, in which case the advertiser would be guilty of theft.
This problem was discussed in the following Mishnah that became the
benchmark for all the subsequent codes and responsa down the ages.
"Rabbi Yehudah said that a shopkeeper may not distribute parched corn or
nuts to children, (a different source adds maidservants), because he
thereby accustoms them to come and buy from him. (In this way he deprives
his competitors of their property right and of their livelihood). The Sages
permit it (holding that there is no property right in this case in the
customers. The subsequent discussion in the Talmud says it was permitted
because his competitors could simply offer other incentives to the
customers" (Baba Metziah, Chapter 4, Mishna 12).
However, our interest here lies in a failure of the advertiser to fulfill
the obligations spelled out in the advertisement. Our discussion is not
concerned with defaulting on the contract or non compliance, rather it is
limited to the Rabbis view of the spiritual damage involved in not keeping
one's word, whether given verbally or reduced to written contracts.
Furthermore, there is the element of godliness and religiosity involved in
keeping one's word. The Sifre commenting on the biblical verse in
Deuteronomy (25: 15), "just weights and measures you shall have",
interprets the Hebrew words 'hen tzedek' that actually mean, just measures,
to also represent the word 'hen', yes, saying, 'let your yes be yes and
your no be no'.
" A storekeeper had displayed the prices on the articles in his
store. When the market price on these goods rises, may he change the
prices without canceling the advertisement he had distributed or would he
be guilty of a lack of faith in Divine Providence"?
"According to the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh IChoshen Mishpat, section
23, sub-section 20) when prices in the market move higher, the storekeeper
may similarly raise his own prices. Here too, the storekeeper may do
so. However, in this case the further question of keeping one's word is
involved. By displaying the prices in his store, he has signified his
agreement to these prices, even though the agreement was made in writing
(rather than verbally that is considered to be more binding). Now by
changing the prices he shows himself to be lacking in trust in divine
Providence (to provide him with a livelihood even if he maintains his
promise of the lower price level. This is in contrast to the actions of
Rabbi Safrah described in the Talmud". (Teshuvot Bet Avi, part 4, section
185. Rabbi Yitzchak Liebes, New York, 5745- 1985)
The incident referred to by Rabbi Liebes is mentioned in the Talmud (Baba
Bathra 85) as an example of one whose speech is truth. It refers to a
transaction in which the contract is merely implied by the conduct of one
party. Rabbi Safrah was standing in prayer when a buyer approached him to
purchase his goods. When the buyer received no reaction to his offer, he
raised the original offer taking the rabbi's silence for rejection. As the
prayer continued so the bidding rose, until finally Rabbi Safrah showed
that he had finished praying. Hastily, the merchant counted out the coins
of his last offer only to find that Rabbi Safrah returned to him the
difference between that and his very first offer.
"If a person sins and behaves unfaithfully against G-d, in that he denies
to his neighbor concerning that which was entrusted to him or a loan or a
thing taken in violence or has oppressed his neighbor"(Leviticus, 5:21)
Rabbi Akiva asked, " Why are such actions seen as being against G-d? This
is since the party that entrusted the thing in the hands of another or made
them a loan, did so without a contract or without witnesses [otherwise any
claims would be difficult to deny]. The only witness was therefore G-d and
any denial was therefore a sin against G-d" (Torah Cohanim).
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.
Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.