The Torah in Parashat Behar discusses the various laws that apply during yovel – the jubilee year – including the return of sold lands to their original owners. After presenting this law, the Torah proceeds to establish that the return of lands during yovel affects their sale price during the other years. Since the transaction is inherently temporary, the value of the property will depend on when during the yovel cycle the land is purchased. The same property sold forty years before the jubilee will have greater value than it would ten years later, because the buyer will have ten fewer years in which to benefit from it. The Torah commands in this context, “al tonu ish et achiv” (25:14) – that buyers and sellers must act fairly in setting prices. The simple meaning of the verse is that it forbids those who sell land to charge reasonable prices that take into account the number of years remaining until the yovel. However, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 51a) establishes that this prohibition – “ona’a” – applies also to the buyer, and thus just as a seller may not charge an unreasonably high price for his merchandise, a buyer may not pay an unreasonably low price.
While the technical prohibition of ona’a relates to fairness in the marketplace, warning buyers and sellers not to take advantage of the other party’s limited knowledge of the merchandise’s value, we might also point to a broader concept underlying this law. Just as we must not deceive others by overpricing merchandise, likewise, we must avoid deceiving ourselves by overvaluing and overpaying for the many different kinds of “merchandise” available to us in this world. Each day of our lives, we have decisions to make about how much time, effort and money to invest in different things. We need to choose which material possessions to acquire, and how much we are prepared to pay for each. We need to choose which relationships to invest in, and how much to invest in them. And we need to choose which activities we wish to invest in, and how much of an investment to make. The prohibition of ona’a warns that people are prone to being misled into paying unreasonably high prices for cheap property. Just as a large, high-quality field outwardly appears valuable, but the imminent onset of yovel lowers its true value, likewise, many things in life seem very valuable, and worth a considerable investment, but in truth, they offer us minimal benefit. We must therefore ensure not to “sell” ourselves “property” at an unreasonably high cost, not to “pay” more than we should for possessions and pursuits that offer us limited value.
As mentioned, the prohibition of ona’a also forbids buyers from paying an unfairly low price for merchandise. If we want to acquire something truly valuable, we must be prepared to pay for it in full. Just as we must avoid the mistake of investing too much in things which offer little value, so must we avoid the mistake of investing too little in things which, if we pay the proper “price,” offer us great benefits. When it comes to that which has true, eternal value, we must be willing and prepared to make a considerable investment. The command of ona’a alerts us to the need to carefully determine the true value of all the available “merchandise” in the world, so we avoid paying too much for things that offer us little, and paying too little for things which are truly precious.