Behar: People Are Astounded by What's in This Dvar Torah!

“Puffing” refers to advertising and other selling activities that exaggerate the quality or benefit of goods or services.  Under American law, puffing is legal, so long as it can be reasonably construed as a matter of opinion. 

But Judaism forbids puffing since, by definition, it is making a knowing exaggeration.  It is therefore misleading and a form of deception.     

Most of us are not merchants in the usual sense.   But all of us “sell.”  We disseminate information, advocate our opinions, and make recommendations, hoping and intending that others will accept and act upon our words. 

In doing so, we generally do not attempt to objectively “inform.”  We try to persuade.  We seldom point out our bias, our limited knowledge and experience about the matter/item, and the potential drawbacks to whatever we are “promoting.”

This week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechuchotai, includes the mitzvah (commandment): “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.”  Leviticus 25:14. 

Our tradition interprets this verse to mean, among many other things:

·      We must inform the “buyer” (anyone who would accept anything we offer, even an opinion) of any defect in what we are “selling.” (Chosen Mishpat 228:6).

·      We may not mislead regarding the true state of an item, idea, etc.  For example, cleaning and shining an item to sell is permitted; painting it to look new is not.  (Chosen Mishpat 228:9, Aruch Hashulchan, C. M. 228:5). 

·      We may not offer to pay less for an item than its market value, if we suspect that the seller may not realize its true value.  (Chosen Mishpat 228:18.  This and the preceding two points are noted in Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor, 322-3.)

·      We may not falsely advertise or in any way falsely praise an item we wish to sell (Sfas Tomim, ch.5).  Rabbi Nachum Amsel provides the example of the coffee company that praised its product as “mountain grown.”  People thought that this was a distinguishing benefit and the ad substantially increased sales.  In fact, all coffee is grown in mountainous regions.  Since the ad’s claim was true, it was legal under American law.  But since it implied (and indeed resulted in) a false benefit, it was forbidden under Jewish law.  Rabbi Amsel contrasts product ads that feature beautiful models, because it is not reasonable to believe that the models will come with purchase/use of the product or service.  The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, pg. 5-6.  However, I suppose that depends on the product or service! 

The marketplace caveat of “Buyer beware” is contrary to Jewish law.  Our goal – and obligation – is to be fair and honest in all of our dealings, which requires full disclosure even with “cleaning and polishing” to “put our best foot forward.”  

Our tradition holds that G-d is constantly aware of what we are doing, and why.  (E.g., Psalm 139:1-4; High Holiday Unataneh Tokef prayer).  Those who believe that this is the case will certainly want to act ethically.   For those who either do not believe it, or are unsure, consciously acting as if it is true can be a powerful technique to promote ethical behavior.  

Either way, we should strive to remember this in all of our interactions with others.

Shabbat shalom!  

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3