The first part of this week’s double parsha, Behar, presents the economic laws regulating the Torah’s utopian agrarian system.
The Torah teaches that once they had settled in their land, the Israelites were to plant, harvest, and store the produce of their fields for six years. During the seventh year of the cycle, the shmita (sabbatical year), they were not to plant or to harvest or to store produce that grew on its own. However, everyone was free to eat whatever grew on its own as needed.
After seven of these seven-year cycles, the 50th year was designated the yoveil (jubilee). During this year, not only was farming prohibited, but all Israelite slaves (actually, indentured servants) were to be freed and any land sold during the previous 49 years was to revert to its original owners. In other words, land was never actually sold, but only leased until the next yoveil.
The Torah explains it this way:
When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong (al tonu) one another. In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the yoveil; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years, the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God.
It’s quite straightforward — land transactions were based on paying the going rate per harvest, times the number of harvests during the length of the lease until the next yoveil. Overcharging or refusing to pay the going rate was “wronging one another.”
Of course, the rabbis extended this concept far beyond real estate deals. They applied the first “do not wrong one another” to all types of deceptive business practices, including putting the very best produce at the top of the barrel while what is underneath is of lower quality or mixed with straw or leaves, painting used utensils to make them look new, or distributing parched corn and nuts to children so that they will bring their parents to your store. It doesn’t take much imagination to describe modern equivalents of each of these.
The rabbis then applied the second “do not wrong one another” to “wronging with words.” A customer may not ask a merchant the price of an item he has no intention of buying at any price; a person may not taunt a repentant sinner with “remember your former deeds;” nor may a person say to a convert to Judaism, “Just yesterday you worshiped idols and had pigs’ flesh between your teeth.”
This is the basic halacha of “wronging,” to which the hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (1765-1827, Poland) added:
A hasid, according to Maimonides, is one who always goes beyond the letter of the law. When the Torah states, “You shall not wrong [or defraud] one another,” the hasid takes it one step further and does not defraud himself either by considering his virtues greater than they actually are.