You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller…You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that Adonay your God is giving you. For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly is abhorrent to Adonay your God.
Deuteronomy 25: 13-16
When it comes to disputing specific bills and charges, all of us can share nightmarish stories about haggling with companies. The clear message often conveyed to us: Let the buyer beware. Within the business world, this popular maxim suggests that the consumer-and not the company- bears responsibility for knowing all the facts about his/her purchase. Too often, let the buyer beware exempts a company from the culpability it deserves. When we sign a document for example, we don’t usually read the obscure regulations on page eight; which we cannot adequately read without numerous visits to the ophthalmologist. When we commit to a company we have supported for years, we cannot always anticipate new policies or regulations which previously did not exist. When we agree to certain warranties or extended insurance on products we buy, there is often a fine print which a well-schooled seller can justify as a means to deny any refund. In other words, as consumers we face limitations no matter how ‘aware’ we may be. As a general principle, therefore, let the buyer beware is wise advice but it places the burden on the wrong shoulders.
Judaism, on the other hand, placed responsibility on the seller and not on the buyer. In this week’s portion Ki Tetze, the Torah commands that people use honest weights and measures in business. The Torah refers specifically to a consumer who, let’s say, buys fish in the market, which the seller must weigh on a scale. A consumer does not inspect the scale for accuracy, and therefore relies on the honesty of the seller. If that scale is tampered with, the seller is held accountable. From this specific reference in the Torah, let the seller beware became a fundamental Jewish maxim and ethical principle. Sellers violating the command were held accountable; and no amount of excuses or bureaucratic double talk would suffice. Businesses not only had to be on guard; if they deceived the public in any way (no matter how clever they might be in proving the legality of their actions) they-and not the consumer paid the price. The Torah recognized the limitations of a consumer, and proposed measures to ease the concern. The seller bore the burden of responsibility; if he/she developed a reputation for dishonesty or deception, the consequences would be severe.
Demanding accountability: what a concept!