Ancient Israel was largely a farming economy. This week’s Torah portion stipulates that every seventh year is to be a “sabbatical” for the land: “You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard” (Lev 25:4). In addition, once every fifty years a “jubilee” year was declared, whereby, among other things, real estate property reverted to its original owner.
This raised an obvious question, however. If the jubilee year was just around the corner, what would be a fair price to charge for any land being bought or sold? And, on the other hand, what if the jubilee had occurred only recently, so that many years would pass before the land would revert to its original owner? The Torah stipulates that in either case, the price should be determined by the total number of anticipated annual harvests: the more harvests, the higher the price.
To this general rule, the Torah adds this specification: “When you sell to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you may not take advantage of him.” (Lev 25:14). That is, the price has to be fair, determined in keeping with the number of anticipated harvests. The Rabbis of the Mishnah found it somewhat surprising, however, that nearly the same stipulation should occur just three verses later: “You shall not take advantage of one another, and you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.”
Well, texts sometimes do repeat things. But the ancient Rabbis operated on the assumption that the Torah never repeats: if something seems to be restated, they maintained, it must certainly contain some additional teaching. In this case, the Mishnah states that there are in fact two different kinds of “taking advantage”: the first is taking financial advantage—charging more or less than a fair price—and the other is “taking advantage with words” (ona’at devarim).
In both cases, a person takes advantage by having some information that the other person doesn’t have. Thus, if he knows that property reverts to its original owner in a sabbatical year, and also knows when the next sabbatical year is to occur, while the other guy (a foreigner, or someone simply ignorant of the law) doesn’t, he is not allowed to conceal that knowledge to his own advantage. “Taking advantages with words” is similar: he uses something he knows to the other fellow’s detriment.
The Mishnah provides a number of examples. Someone who pretends to be interested in buying something and enters into negations with a seller over the price—“How much do you want for this?”—when he knows perfectly well he has no intention of buying—such a person is guilty of taking verbal advantage. True, there is no actual monetary loss involved, but he is still putting the seller through his paces quite needlessly.
Some more examples: if he knows about a person that he is a ba‘al teshuvah (someone who became religious after having not been), he cannot say to him, “Don’t be so uppity—remember the things you used to do.” Or if he knows that the person is the child of parents who had converted to Judaism, he cannot say, “Remember the things that your ancestors used to do.”
The Babylonian Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) goes on to give further illustrations: If a donkey driver comes into town in search of grain, you cannot tell the man, “Go to such-and-such an address,” when he knows perfectly well that the person who lives there has never sold any grain. Maimonides also suggested that asking a person a scientific question when the person knows nothing on the subject was likewise a form of ona’at devarim: the result can only be to display the person’s ignorance.
The verse mentioning this second kind of “taking advantage” adds a further note: “And you shall fear your God.” The Rabbis interpreted this expression as asserting that the matter in question cannot always be pinned down to a specific act. Two people can do exactly the same thing, the first in all innocence, the second out of malice: it is a “matter given over to the heart,” that is, you know it when you’re doing it for the wrong reason.
Here is the Talmud’s example. King David, in the Talmud’s account, was not only busy with the affairs of state, but he was also a teacher of the complicated laws of ritual purity. Once when he had finished an exposition of some of these laws and asked the class if they had any questions, one person replied: “David, what is the penalty for someone who sleeps with another man’s wife?”—an obvious allusion to David’s sin with Bathsheba, and something that had no connection to the matters discussed. David answered: “If found guilty, he is punished by death, yet he still has a portion in the World to Come. But someone who shames another person in public”—as the questioner had just done—“has no portion in the World to Come.” What might otherwise look like a student’s innocent question in this case was not; that is why ona’at devarim is a “matter given over to the heart.”