The Torah (Lev. 25:14) terms the laws of cheating in business, specifically overcharging and the like, Ona’ah. The Talmud calls this “Ona’as Mamon” – financial cheating. A few verses later (25:17) the Torah introduces the laws of “Ona’as Devarim,” hurtful speech. Examples of hurtful speech are reminding someone of dark secrets from their own past, publicly embarrassing them, or giving them an insulting nickname. I often wondered why these two seemingly disparate areas of Jewish Law were both referred to as Ona’ah. What is the connection?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l writes that the Hebrew root of the word Ona’ah connotes taking advantage of another person’s weakness. Cheating in business takes advantage of a customer or vendor’s lack of business savvy, while hurtful speech takes advantage of your target’s private or public vulnerabilities.
“Taking advantage” also has positive connotations, as in “taking advantage” of an opportunity to gain rather than passing it up. Unfortunately, many seem to blur the difference between the negative and positive, and jump at opportunities even when it is at another person’s loss. Remember to consider the broad picture, how our gains may be another’s loss, and insure that our decisions are truly to our advantage!
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
Program Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org