By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Oil change: $60. Corned beef: $38.95/lb. Low-end snow shovel: $38. Desitin: $28.95. Tropicana orange juice: $5.95 for a 59-oz. container. Potato salad: $13.95/lb.
A seasoned shopper will recognize that these prices are rather high. Indeed, they are outrageously high. The question is, does halachah permit such pricing? May stores just price products as high as the market will tolerate–or is there some sort of limit? Also, does it matter if some people just seem to accept and pay it, regardless of the price?
The Torah (Vayikra 25:14) speaks of ona’ah, financial and verbal oppression. “When you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, you shall not oppress one another.” Our sages (BavaMetzia 58b) state that this oppression refers to oppressive pricing. There is a further verse that also discusses oppression, which the sages refer to as verbal or psychological oppression.
It is fascinating to note that many authorities (See Minchas Chinuch 67 and Dibros Moshe BM 53:1) write that one who financially oppresses an individual is also in violation of the second verse, because whenever there is financial oppression there is also a psychological oppression since being exploited financially is also a form of psychological oppression.
What is ona’ah all about and does it apply in the above situation? The general rule is that if a store charges above the market cost, this is considered financial oppression, ona’ah. It makes no difference if the purchaser was aware of the overpricing or not (Ramah 227:7 based on the Mordechai 307:7). The laws of ona’ah apply to sales, purchases, and even rentals (SA 227:32). It applies to precious stones as well (SA 227:15).
There are three different types of ona’ah: (a) if the overpricing is within 16.67% of the market price; (b) if the overpricing is exactly 16.67% above the market price; and (c) if the overpricing is above 16.67% of the market price. There is a debate among the Rishonim whether one is fully permitted to charge within 16.67% of the market price (Sefer HaChinuch and Baal HaMaor) or whether it is prohibited to do so, but if one did it, the sale remains valid (Ramban). If it is exactly 16.67% more, then the sale remains valid but the overcharge must be returned. If the overcharging is over 16.67%, then the victim may reverse the validity of the sale if he so wishes (227:4).
How Is Market Value Determined?
There are two situations in which market value is determined: if there is a set market price for the item, and if there is a range of prices. If there is a set market price for the item in that neighborhood, some poskim hold that there is a problem of ona’ah even if it is less than 16.67% (see Aruch HaShulchan 227:7 and Machane Efraim Ona’ah, Siman 7).
There is a debate in regard to where there is a range of prices in the community. The Beis Yosef (CM 209) suggests that ona’ah does not exist in such a situation. Most poskim (see Bach and Shach cited in Sheivet HaLevi Vol. V #218) hold that even if there is a range of prices there is still a prohibition of ona’ah. Some poskim write that the figure is calculated by determining 16.67% above the highest price for the item within the range. Others write that one calculates 16.67% above the median price of the item. Rabbi Yaakov Yeshayahu Blau, z’l, in his Pischei Choshen (Vol. IV p. 296) seems to feel that this is the most authoritative view.
There is another view that the determination of the market price is based upon what the majority of vendors sell the item for (Imrei Yosher Vol. II #155). This may also be the view of the Heishiv Moshe (Responsum #102). [It is possible that the Heishiv Moshe may be in agreement with Rav Blau, however, as the language is not clear.]
Therefore, in the prices discussed above, it would seem that if General Kosher Supermarket charges $20 per pound, Acme Kosher Supermarket $22 per pound, and Yiddel’s Kosher Supermarket charges $21 dollars a pound, then the fourth supermarket about to determine its pricing cannot charge more than $24.50 per pound. The truth is that the fourth supermarket should not be charging above $21, but it is not considered an amount that should be returned until the price reaches $24.50 per pound.
The Range View
There is another understanding of these halachos as propounded by Rav Chaim Kohn in his book Hilchos Mishpat (page 294). His view, confirmed by this author in conversation with Rav Kohn, is that the true market price is what is determined by supply and demand in what the market will tolerate. Therefore, according to Rav Kohn, even if there is a minority of people who will purchase the item without looking at the price, this is still considered to be a valid market price. When this author suggested to Rav Kohn that this opinion may almost negate the concept of ona’ah, he responded: “In your example, where three stores price an item at $20 per pound and a fourth store prices it at $30 per pound, there are still buyers. Yet there would be no buyers at $50 per pound. The $50 would be considered ona’ah.”
Rav Kohn’s view was not accepted by the author of the Pischei Choshen, z’l, and it seems was also not accepted by rabbanim I had spoken with in the area.
An Ignored Area
If it is true that Rav Blau’s view is the normative halachic view, then it would seem that there would be an obligation upon the store managers to determine the upper pricing limits as to numerous items before they price their goods. This would seem to place an extraordinary strain upon the managers and owners of stores and supermarkets that sell numerous items. Yet, many poskim that this author consulted with are of the opinion that it should be done.
To The Seller As Well
There are also times when there is ona’ah the other way–where the buyer took advantage of the seller and purchased the item for a price 16.67% below the market price (SA 227:1). Indeed, there is an opinion where even those who assist in a sale are in violation of the prohibition of ona’ah (Mishkenos Yaakov Responsum #59).
The laws of negating a sale or refunding the excess 16.67% do not apply to real estate.
The laws of ona’ah do not apply to barter (SA 227:20).
If a person fully understood the value of the item and agreed to the ona’ah, then there is no ona’ah negating the sale (SA 227:21). If they merely said that they are mochel the ona’ah but did not know the true value of the item, then the laws of ona’ah still apply.
If the quality of the item being sold is unavailable in the market, then this is certainly an exception where the laws of ona’ah do not apply.
When there is no existent market for an item then ona’ah does not apply (Hilchos Mishpat page 294).
The Aruch HaShulchan (227:7) writes that there may be a distinction between someone who sells a high volume of the item versus someone who only sells a small quantity of the particular item. Some poskim further qualify things by saying that ona’ah only applies when the prices are not so wide-ranged. However, if the prices are very extreme, then the laws of ona’ah do not apply at all.
It is interesting to note that the Chofetz Chaim writes in his Laws of Rechilus (Sefer Chofetz Chaim, Siman 10 and 11) that if it is clear that the laws of ona’ah do apply, then anyone who is aware of it should inform the vendor. v
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