Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
An Honest Mistake
Parshas Behar contains the prohibition of Ona'ah, causing financial
harm to others. "When you make a sale to your fellow, or purchase
from him, do not cause [financial] harm to one another." (25:14)
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 49b) explains this to be a prohibition
against the seller to (substantially) overcharge the purchaser for his
merchandise (unbeknownst to the purchaser), and against the buyer
to substantially underpay for his purchase, unbeknownst to the
merchant. "Substantial," in this context, refers to at least a sixth more
or less than the market (retail) price. [The laws of ona'ah are both
complex and fascinating. A full discussion of them is beyond the
scope of this column. The reader is encouraged to study the sources:
Talmud ibid., Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat chapter 227.]
In Frankfurt, there lived a powerful and well connected nobleman,
who was also very wise and knowledgable. Indeed, his knowledge
even extended to the fields of Halacha and Talmudic studies. One
day, he came across the celebrated sage Rabbi Nassan Adler zt"l,
famed Rebbe of the Chasam Sofer. "Esteemed Rav," said the
nobleman, "I have for you a Talmudic query, and I hope you can be
of assistance. The Gemara (Bava Kamma 113b) tells the story of
Shmuel, the famous Talmudic sage, who once came to purchase
what was ostensibly a copper vessel from a gentile merchant.
Shmuel, however, realized that in fact the vessel was one of gold.
Instead of informing the merchant of his error, the Gemara relates,
Shmuel went ahead and made the purchase at the price of 4 zuz,
which was set on the mistaken assumption that the vessel was one
of copper. Furthermore, the Gemara relates, Shmuel 'swallowed up'
(this is the Gemara's wording - 'Hivliah' in Hebrew) an additional zuz
(it appears the merchant didn't notice the missing zuz), thus further
cheating the poor merchant out of another zuz, and bringing the final
price down to only three zuz! Now tell me, esteemed Rabbi, and
please be honest: Is this ethical? Would Shmuel have gone through
with such a fraudulent purchase had the merchant been Jewish? Is
such the example of one of the greatest and most celebrated
Talmudic sages?! After reading this story, I must tell you, I no longer
wondered why it is that the Jews are so despised by their gentile
neighbours - if this is the way they treat them! Does not your Torah
forbid the purchaser to underpay, just as it forbids the seller to
"Ah," Rav Adler began, "you have asked a wise and perceptive
question. However, were that you understood the deep-rooted ethics
and true wisdom of our venerable sages, you might have realized that
you have completely misunderstood the Gemara. Indeed, from this
Gemara itself we see just how ethical and honest Shmuel truly was!
"Firstly, allow me to point out that in many other places in the
Talmud, 'swallowing up' a zuz does not mean to subtract a zuz (as
Rashi explains it here) - it means to add-on a zuz! For instance, in
Masseches Sukkah (39a), the Gemara describes the procedure of
buying an esrog in the Shemittah year (during which farmers are
commanded to leave their fields unworked, and are forbidden to
charge for their fruits and produce). The farmer, if necessary, says the
Talmud, can 'swallow up' an additional zuz in the price of the lulav,
and thus by overcharging for the lulav, recover some of his costs for
the esrog. In many other cases we find that to 'swallow up' money
means to add-on, and not subtract, money."
"Indeed," agreed the nobleman. "But even as you say, Shmuel payed
only one more zuz. Paying five zuz for a vessel of gold on the premise
that the same vessel of copper would have been worth four still
amounts to nothing less than highway robbery!"
"Wait," continued Rav Adler, "I'm not finished. Now why, you ask, did
Shmuel 'swallow' one more zuz into the purchase price? You see
Shmuel immediately recognized that the vessel was one of gold, and
that the merchant, in charging for it the price of copper, was making
a monumental mistake. Yet this completely mystified Shmuel. Surely,
if the merchant had purchased the vessel from one of his suppliers,
he would have paid far more than four zuz for it, even at the
wholesale price. How then could he make such a blatant error?!
"Shmuel understood that there were two possible resolutions to this
conundrum. Either the vessel was stolen, and thus the 'merchant' was
completely unaware of its true nature. Or, perhaps he had acquired
it through honest means - perhaps a present or inheritance. Shmuel
realized that before he pointed out to the merchant his error, he must
first ascertain the answer to this question. You see, if the vessel were
stolen, Shmuel would do his best to find its true owner. However,
having done so, he would of course ask the owner to reimburse him
for the amount it cost him to buy it back. If he were to inform the
merchant of its true nature, he would undoubtedly charge him far
more money, which would ultimately be the loss of its true owner.
But if the merchant had come by the vessel through honest means,
then indeed, he deserved to be informed that the vessel was of gold,
and to be paid accordingly. This was Shmuel's dilemma: How could
he find out - without tipping him off?
"Shmuel devised a test. Acting as if he didn't notice, he slipped an
additional zuz into the four zuz they had agreed upon. What would
the merchant do when he realized Shmuel had 'accidentally' overpaid?
If he pointed out the error, and gave the zuz back, it showed he was
an honest and G-d fearing man, and certainly he had come by the
vessel through honest means. But if he failed to point out Shmuel's
error, and slyly pocketed the windfall, then he was surely a dishonest
man, and the vessel too had come to him through unscrupulous
means. When, indeed, the merchant stealthily snatched up the extra
zuz, Shmuel had his answer, and left to begin looking for the real
owner of the vessel. So please, next time, before you consider
questioning the morals of our holy Sages, make sure you have truly
understood the story..."
While certainly not the simple understanding of the Gemara, Rav
Adler's explanation gives us insight into the high moral and ethical
standard by which he felt our Sages conducted their business
dealings, with both Jew and gentile alike. When a Jew holds himself
to a higher standard, thereby demonstrating in a tangible way the
results of a Torah education, even the nations of the world exclaim,
"Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication has been sponsored by R'
Dovid and R' Leibel D'ancona, in memory of their mother,
Rivkah bas R' Yehudah Aryeh Rabinovitch.
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.