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Shabbat Parashat Devarim 5773

Ask the Rabbi: A Buyer Not Admitting He Erred to His Own Benefit

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: While pricing computers, a proprietor promised me he would beat any price I found. I told him a cheap quote I had received and he agreed to beat it. When I checked that quote, I realized it was for a cheaper computer. Do I need to tell the proprietor my mistake or can I go with the agreed price?


Answer: It is forbidden to deceive someone (Chulin 94a), as finds expression in several p’sukim (Bereishit 31:26; Vayikra 19:11; Vayikra 25:14). You are asking because of the convergence of mitigating circumstances. You cited the price with honest intentions; by the time you realized, he had already agreed to the price, i.e., it is apparently a reasonable, worthwhile one.

However, if one takes money due to an honest mistake, he must return it. The matter is clearer here because the deal is not yet complete, and going through with it based on false information given in the past is continuing the disinformation, by not correcting it, now intentionally. The gemara (Shvuot 31a) says that acting in a manner that just gives a false impression is considered a violation of the requirement to distance oneself from a lie even if he said nothing. Going through with the transaction is thus not much different than lying in the first place.

What if the transaction took place? There are rules of ona’ah ­(sales that took place at an unfair price), and the general rule is that if the difference between the sales price and the proper one is less than one sixth, one does not have to return the mispricing (see Bava Metzia 49b). If we could determine that in our case, the price was not off by that much from the range of normal prices, ostensibly there should be consequences to your questionable discount. Also, if the “victim” of the unfair price was told the proper price but still agreed to the “wrong” one, the agreement stands as is (Shulchan Aruch, CM 227:21). Arguably, the proprietor knows costs and prices, and this should be equivalent to one who was told the real price yet agreed. (See a discussion of whether it is enough for the party to know or whether there must be an explicit stipulation in Pitchei Choshen, Ona’ah 10:(30).)

However, there is a fundamental distinction between the regular rules of ona’ah and a factual mistake. The leeway of a sixth given for ona’ah is based on the inexact science of setting an exact price, making modestly differing prices marginally legitimate. However, if someone gives false information regarding something exact, such as measurements of size, weight, or number, ona’ah applies even for a difference of less than a sixth and even regarding objects that are excluded from the standard laws of ona’ah (Shulchan Aruch, CM 232:1; S’ma ad loc. 2). If the price was based on an exact fact, the price you were quoted by someone else, ona’ah applies even if off slightly. The fact that he agreed to a low price reflects a calculated concession on his part – but his buyers have to keep to the parameters of that concession.

An important distinction is crucial here. Sometimes a buyer or seller will try to make a deal look better by information he provides (e.g., “the going rate is X, but I am giving you a discount”). Even if he lies, there are not always grounds for employing ona’ah if other factors are missing (see Taz to CM 332:4). However, if people set the price based on, for example, the price he gives other customers, and he lied about what that price is, the laws of ona’ah apply even if the price is objectively reasonable (see Rama, CM 332:4). In such cases one has to analyze the language of the agreement: was there a set price set, with the other information just trying to convince? Or, was the price to others the basis for the price here (see Netivot 332:4). The way you worded it (“I will beat anyone’s price”) indicates direct linkage to the quote. Therefore, you would have to return any price difference (see harsh words of the Maharashdam CM 434, regarding an agreement to a certain price margin, where the seller gave the wrong information regarding the cost of supplies).

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