Time Limit on Onaah

Bava Metzia (4:3) | Yisrael Bankier | 2 months ago

In this week's Mishnayot we learnt about onaah. Onaah refers to the prohibition violated when a product is sold at a price, beyond a limit, above or below the standard price. We learnt that if the item is sold for more (or less) than a sixth of the standard price then the sale is null and void. If however the price differs by exactly a sixth, then the sale is valid, but the difference is returned. The Mishnah teaches that there is a time limit within which the wronged party can claim onaah; that is the time it would take one to show the product to a merchant or relative that understands the market of such products. Considering that the law of onaah is biblical, what is the basis for the time limit?

The Bartenura explains that if one delays longer than this time period, he has forgone his claim for onaah. According to this understanding, there is no clash between the law of onaah and the time limit, since after the time limit expires, it is considered as if the wronged part forwent his claim for onaah.

The Sefer HaChinnuch (337, s.v amru) however writes that having the ability to claim onaah, to retract on a sale, indefinitely would complicate matters. Consequently, the Chachamim introduced a time limit for interest of commerce. According to this understanding, we find another instance where Chachamim can institute overriding takanot (decrees) in monetary matters for the greater good.

Is there a practical difference between these two different understandings of the time limit?

To answer this question, we shall ask another. What would be the ruling in a situation where the purchaser experienced a situation beyond his control (ones) that prevented him from showing the product to someone, within the time limit. The Shulchan Aruch (ChM 237:7) rules that he would still be able to claim onaah. The Tur derives this position from the Rosh who explains that if the purchaser was lazy and did not show the product to someone, then he has forgone his claim to onaah. The Tur understands from the Rosh that this is only if he was "lazy". If however it was a case of ones, the ruling would be different.

The Haghot Imrei Baruch however directs our attention to the Tosfot. The Tosfot (49b, s.v. bichdei) asks that the Mishnah appears to provide a variable time limit for claiming onaah. Sometimes the distance or time to an expert may be longer than others and the Chachamim generally do not provided subjective measures within halacha. The Tosfot therefore suggest that a fixed limit was selected based on the general time it would take to get a professional opinion. The fixed limit is independent of the variables in an individual case. The answer of the Tosfot suggests that since the time limit is fixed, the time limit applies even in the case of ones. Irrespective of the purchasers circumstances, once the limit expires, onaah may no longer claimed.

Once could suggest that one way of explaining the debate regarding ones (and whether the time limit is variable) is based on the two ways of understanding the onaah above. According to the first understanding, that once the time limit expires it is considered as if the purchaser has forgone his claim, then it makes sense to consider the circumstances of the purchaser as time goes on. In a case of ones it follows, that the purchaser still maintains the right to claim onaah.

According to the second understanding however, that the time limit was fixed in the interest of commerce, one could understand that the limit was fixed irrespective of individual circumstance. Consequently, the time limit would not be variable and any claim of ones would be irrelevant. Therefore, once the time limit expired, then one could no longer claim onaah under all circumstances.

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