It seems to be an unwritten understanding that in the world of commerce, war is waged between the buyer and seller. The seller will name a price and it is the obligation of the buyer to try and lower the price ensuring that he gets the best price possible. How does the Halacha view such a relationship and price setting?
The fourth perek of Gemara Bava Metzia discusses the limits of this relationship - this is known as “ona’ah” (fraud). Both a buyer and seller are able to claim that the price that has been paid does not represent the quality and/or quantity of goods received. The Gemara in Kidushin discusses that even a Beit Din is liable to this din. When the Beit Din is obligated to divide an estate it must ensure that the valuation of the property is true to the market price.
Is there are limit to the claim and what is the effect if the there was indeed fraud? Chazal set the limits at a sixth either above or below the market price. Furthermore, Chazal gave the purchaser a time limit within which to claim ona’ah, that being the time in which he could take the product to a third party for evaluation. If the buyer was over charged exactly a sixth and protested within this period then the seller has transgressed this prohibition. There is a debate (50b) regarding how to deal with this overcharged amount. Rebbi believes that the sale is fraudulent and that it should become null and void. However Rebbi Natan disagrees and learns that the sale does stand, however the amount overcharged (the sixth) must be returned. Both Rebbi and Rebbi Natan understand that the overcharging of a product is prohibited, though it could be that the point of disagreement is that if the seller does cheat the buyer, would the buyer remove his interest in purchasing the goods or just that the buyer is interested in recouping the loss.
However, Chazal did understand that too narrow a parameter was also not feasible; as stated the amount set was a sixth. If the buyer was over charged by less than a sixth then the sale is valid as we assume that in general people forgo that difference in price.
Conversely if the seller overcharged more than a sixth and the buyer complained within the above stated time-limit, the sale is null and void and either side is able to cancel the purchase.
To conclude, Chazal understood that there is a need within the economic world for people to vary prices and try to make a profit. However what must not be forgotten is that within the aggressive and competitive world of commerce the Revelation of G-d is no less than that in the Beit Midrash.
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