By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Kesubos 98 – Keep the Change
What happens if the buyer willingly pays a higher price than the item really should have been sold for? Who gets the excess? The owner of the item can obviously claim that it should all go to him since, after all, it’s his item for which the buyer was paying! On the other hand, the agent who actually carried out the sale on the seller’s behalf can claim that the price of the sale-item is what belongs to him, and anything beyond that has nothing to do with him.
L’maaseh, the Gemara paskens that it depends what type of merchandise we’re talking about. If it’s something that generally does not carry a specific price tag, then we say that the buyer simply deemed it to be that valuable, and was paying the “extra” as part and parcel of the purchase money. Well, purchase money is for the item sold, and the item sold belonged to the owner, so all that money goes exclusively to him. However, a piece of merchandise that has a very specific, set price is a different story. In such a case, the owner and the sales agent split the extra money that was paid. Why? Explains Rashi, because we surmise that in such a situation the buyer was giving that extra bit as a gift. Since we do not really know to whom he intended to give that little gift, we split it between the owner and the sales agent.
Sounds a bit quirky, at first, doesn’t it? Not the halacha, of course, but the fact that a buyer would just “randomly” decide to give a gift to the person from whom he purchased his wares. I mean, just think about this for a moment. Imagine you’re watching someone walk into a hardware store – where all the items have a very clear, non-negotiable price tag – and when he gets to the checkout counter, he pays a few dollars extra. “Excuse me sir,” says the cashier, “you accidentally paid three dollars extra.” The response? “Yes, yes; I realize. It was intentional. Keep the change.”
And without another word he grabs his bag and walks out of the store.
Aside from the argument that is bound to erupt between the cashier and the store owner as to who gets to keep those three extra dollars (see Tosafos that in the case of a hired sales agent, the halacha may be different), one cannot help but be befuddled, bemused, and amused by such seemingly eccentric behavior.
Now, it very well may be that the reason why we have a hard time relating to the realistic nature of such a scenario has a lot to do with our much more formal and institutionalized nature of business. Once upon a time, business transactions had a much more personal flavor to them than we encounter nowadays (at least, by and large, that is). But let’s pause that thought for a moment, and consider this from another angle.
In this week’s parsha (for those of us still living outside of Eretz Yisrael), one of the pesukim we come across directly addresses the issue of overcharging or underpaying, just in the context of lack of consent from the other party. In addition to that basic law of onaah, though, Chazal derive a l’chatchila injunction as well. “When you have something to sell, sell it to your fellow Jew. If you’ve got something to buy, give the business to your fellow Jew.” When it comes to buying, we readily understand the ideal to give your fellow Jew the business. But what about when it comes to selling? What exactly are you doing for the guy by offering it to him? You don’t think he can find the exact same product, or perhaps even better, elsewhere?
That’s precisely the point! We live in a world that is a consumer’s market. The explosion of global commerce in the twentieth century (and the little bit of our current century that has passed) has created a situation wherein there is just a mind boggling quantity and array of products to choose from. It is a rare occurrence, indeed, to be looking for a certain product and not be able to find it. No, it is not an extinct dinosaur, but it is most definitely very uncommon. The “so what” of this is that we lack a sense of gratitude to the seller who provided the wares that we just bought.
Back in the “old country”, a buyer could be just as grateful to the seller for providing the goods as the seller was to the buyer for providing him with the business. Because, essentially, it really is a reciprocal relationship. One in which each feels a sense of hakaras ha’tov to the other for the benefit provided. Within the context of that mindset, it is not all that surprising that the one who is already anyway pulling dollars (or rubles, if you prefer) out of his wallet and extending them outward, may perhaps allow a few extra ones to come out as well as an expression of his gratitude.
Consumers deal with a lot of pressure. When you are looking to buy a new cellphone, for example, and there are about one million three hundred forty nine thousand seven hundred and fifty two options that amazon provides you with (in addition to the google pop-ups telling you “this item is available on another website at a better price!”), it can be a daunting task. And that difficulty in weeding our way through the maze of it all to find a decent, affordable product that suits our needs, can obfuscate any sense of hakaras ha’tov that we may have otherwise felt.
Possibly even more acute of a problem, though, is the stress that merchants have to deal with. If wading through an endless mass of selection is hard for a consumer, just imagine what it must feel like to be on the merchant side of the coin! To deal with practically an infinity of competition! The merchant has to work incredibly hard (perhaps primarily on his bitachon [no jokes]) to be able to get his product noticed and desired. And aside from the parnassa angle of it, there is also the challenge to cultivate a sense of abiding purpose in what you’re doing. When you feel like one, tiny little ant amongst a billion, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of your contribution being significant and meaningful.
Perhaps what it all comes down to, though, is the awareness that every single facet of the briah has its particular role to fill that no other thing or person does. “Ha’Tzur tamim paalo” means that there is nothing extra. No spares just in case. When Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu does something, He does it with absolute precision. The significance, therefore, of any particular object, creature, or person cannot be compromised simply because there seems to be a lot more thereof.
And that is exponentially true when it comes to us Yidden, for we represent the ultimate purpose around which everything else revolves. Just as Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu won’t lose sight of you in terms of making sure that you have the parnassa you need – despite the seemingly endless sea of others – so too does He maintain for you a particular, unique niche to fill that no one else does or can. So, although it may be challenging, the thank-you’s really are due all around for the indispensable service and benefit that we each provide and make available to one another through what we do. Whether you’re the buyer or the seller. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to say, “Keep the change.”
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.