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D’var Torah Behar-Bechukotai: The Halakhah in the Parashah

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

May 13, 2023 | 22 Iyyar 5783

Torah: Leviticus 25:1-27:34 Triennial: Leviticus 25:1-38

Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Here is this week’s D’var Torah:

Playing Monopoly with My Oma
Joshua Kulp
The Halakhah in the Parashah

 

On Shabbat afternoon, I used to play Monopoly with my grandmother, my Oma. Now my grandmother was a terrible Monopoly player, and not just because I was her grandson and she wanted me to win. My Oma had a strong sense of what is right and wrong and thought that those rules should apply to Monopoly as well. If she had two yellow properties, and I landed on the third, it was foul play, in her mind, for me to buy the third.  I, on the other hand, was a competitive young capitalist, and I wanted to win. I would buy the yellow, block her monopoly and since she wouldn’t block mine, I would go on to win.

The Torah does not explicitly prohibit buying a yellow property when your grandmother already owns two (phew). But I believe the spirit of my grandmother resides in one of the mitzvot found in this week’s parashah. The parashah opens with a discussion of the Jubilee year, which occurs every 50 years. At the arrival of the Jubilee, all land returns to its ancestral owners. The Torah warns us when selling or buying land, that both the buyer and the seller must take into account how many years of the Jubilee are left. In verse 25:17 the Torah offers a more general admonition, “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I יהוה am your God.” The immediate context is concerning the sale of land–do not defraud the buyer and sell the price for a high amount when the Jubilee is close, and do not defraud the seller and pay a low price when the Jubilee is far. But the rabbis read a much broader meaning into these verses, claiming that the verse refers to any defrauding of another, either through words or money.

But what exactly is the Torah warning us against? What counts as “defrauding?” This is the topic of the remarkable fourth chapter of Mishnah Bava Metzia. The third mishnah of that chapter offers a precise definition of what constitutes monetary fraud: “The measure of fraud for which one can claim that he was exploited is four silver ma’a from the twenty-four silver ma’a in a sela, or one-sixth of the transaction.” In other words, if one sells something for more than one sixth beyond its accepted value, or buys something for a discount of more than one sixth of its accepted value, and the other party did not realize that they were being overcharged or underpaid, the defrauded party has a right to ask for their money back. There are many details to these laws and they fill up hundreds of pages in traditional law codes. But the essential law is clear. People cannot take advantage of another while engaging in business. If an object, an idea or even an entire company is worth a certain amount, the seller cannot falsely claim it is worth more, nor can the buyer falsely claim it is worth less. A person can, of course, tell another that the object he owns is worth 100 dollars, but he will only sell it for 150. But he cannot say it is worth 150, when it is worth 100.

The Mishnah goes on to state that fraud applies not only to money and things, but also to the way we speak to one another. Mishnah Bava Metzia 4:10 states, “Just as the laws of fraud apply to buying and selling, so too they apply to the spoken word. One may not say, ‘How much is this object?’, if he does not wish to buy it. If one had repented, another should not say to him, ‘Remember your earlier deeds.’ If one descended from converts, another should not say to him, ‘Remember the deeds of your ancestors.’” When one inquires about buying something, the buyer gives the impression that they are interested in buying the object. If the buyer has no intent of doing so, then they are defrauding the other person. It is a form of harm to another person to remind them that the way they are now is not the way they were in the past, for it robs them of their current identity. The fact that the verse ends with “for I am the Lord your God” implies that fraud is an offense not only against the other person but also against God. Even if the other party does not realize they have been defrauded, God, the ultimate arbiter of honesty, does.

Now I do not think I actually defrauded my grandmother while playing Monopoly on Shabbat. She knew who I was, and that I played by different rules.. But she taught me a valuable moral lesson–just because something is legal according to the rules of the game, does not make it moral in real life. Real life need not be Monopoly, with winners and losers. The Torah teaches us that in our business dealings we should be aiming for a higher goal, one in which our wins do not come at the expense of others’ losses.

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