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August 31, 2015 / 16 Elul, 5775
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On Whose Side?

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Mrs. Cooper rightly earned the title “bargain buyer.” She combed the advertisements of her local stores weekly and knew just where to buy each item that week. If you would ask her, she could tell you, “Juice is on sale here this week; chicken is on sale there.”

She had just finished shopping in a large supermarket where she found a great sale of tuna fish, three cans for $2, with no quantity limit. Mrs. Cooper packed a case in her car and went on to an all-kosher store down the block, where meat products were on a special sale.

While waiting on line, Mrs. Cooper met someone from her shul, Mrs. Fleisher, with a shopping cart containing 20 cans of tuna.

“Could I have missed a sale here?” Mrs. Cooper asked herself.

She turned to Mrs. Fleisher and asked, “Is there a sale on tuna?”

“No,” replied Mrs. Fleisher. “However, I’m hosting a lot of people for Seudah Shelishis this week, so I need a lot of tuna. The price is reasonable, though, $1.19 a can.”

“I just picked up a case of tuna at the supermarket up the block, three for $2,” Mrs. Cooper said. “You may want to buy the tuna there.”

Mrs. Fleisher thought for a moment. “Thanks a lot for telling me; I really appreciate it,” she exclaimed. “I was planning on going there anyway. Watch my wagon for a minute, while I return the tuna to the shelf.” She removed the tuna from the shopping cart and returned it to its place.

The kosher store manager, who was standing nearby and overheard the discussion, gave Mrs. Cooper a disapproving look. Although he didn’t say anything, his frown made her wonder whether it was right of her to tell Mrs. Fleisher about the sale at the nearby big supermarket.

Mrs. Cooper came home and asked her husband what he thought. “I have this dilemma all the time,” she said to him. “I could tell every customer where they could get a better bargain!”

“I guess that until Mrs. Fleisher pays for the tuna, there’s no problem in retuning it to the shelf,” he said. “But I understand the ethical dilemma. You might want to try Rabbi Dayan and hear his perspective.”

Mrs. Cooper called Rabbi Dayan and asked: “When I see someone in the process of buying something, can I tell her where she can get it cheaper?”

“There are two conflicting responsibilities here,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “The answer depends mostly on whether the person has already made a firm decision to purchase the item.”

“What do you mean?” asked Mr. Cooper.

“On the one hand, there is a prohibition against causing damage to the storeowner,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “This is true not only for direct damage, but also for indirect damage [grama]. On the other hand, there is a responsibility to spare the customer from loss, which is extension of hashavas aveidah.” (C.M. and GR”A 378:1)

“So how do we deal with this?” asked Mr. Cooper.

“The Gemara [B.B. 21b] indicates that when someone is surely expecting revenue, such as a fisherman closing in on a certain fish, thwarting him is considered damage,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “The Chasam Sofer [C.M. 379] extends this to a customer who has decided to purchase. Then, you should not help the customer through causing the storeowner damage. However, if the customer is still deliberating whether to buy the item, the storeowner cannot consider him as sure revenue. Therefore, the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah would warrant sparing the customer the extra cost.” (Mishpetai Hatorah, Hashavas Aveidah #8)

“Are there other relevant factors?” asked Mrs. Cooper.

About the Author: Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, a noted dayan. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e-mail to subscribe@businesshalacha.com. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e-mail ask@businesshalacha.com.


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