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Jonathan Tobin: Defending the Right to a Jewish State

Heather Hale: Compliment your kids without giving them big heads

Megan Shauri: 10 ways you are ruining your own happiness

Carolyn Bigda: 8 Best Dividend Stocks for 2015

Kiplinger's Personal Finance editors: 7 Things You Didn't Know About Paying Off Student Loans

Samantha Olson: The Crucial Mistake 55% Of Parents Are Making At Their Baby's Bedtime

Densie Well, Ph.D., R.D. Open your eyes to yellow vegetables

The Kosher Gourmet by Megan Gordon With its colorful cache of purples and oranges and reds, COLLARD GREEN SLAW is a marvelous mood booster --- not to mention just downright delish
April 18, 2014

Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology

Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

Megan Wallgren: 10 things I've learned from my teenagers

Lizette Borreli: Green Tea Boosts Brain Power, May Help Treat Dementia

John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious

April 14, 2014

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time

Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

The Kosher Gourmet by Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon Don't dare pass over these Pesach picks for Manischewitz!

April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review May 29, 2007 / 13 Sivan, 5767

Your Loss, My Gain

By Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir


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Taking advantage of someone's mistake


http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | "Taking advantage of someone else's mistake" is quite a broad topic. This week we will give an overview of some of the dilemmas this could involve, and in subsequent columns we will try and give more specific examples.


Jewish law on this question really falls into three categories:

  • When the benefit is something that both parties have equal rights to. In this case there is no problem taking advantage of someone else's carelessness to obtain something that I have every right to -- as long as I don't actually deceive them.

  • When the benefit is at the expense of the mistaken individual. Jewish law does not allow us to benefit from someone's mistake in order to obtain their property or their private information.

  • When the benefit is in the framework of negotiations, we have an intermediate situation. All negotiations involve give and take which, in some sense, are at the expense of one side or the other. In this case it is forbidden to deceive the other side, but permissible to negotiate an advantageous deal.


Many times rivals compete over something that belongs to no one, for example a customer, a rare purchase, a valuable idea, etc. If a rival makes a fatal misstep, then we can only rejoice at the opportunity we have to realize the benefits. The Talmud gives an example of ownerless property. One person intended to take ownership of an abandoned field, but did not fulfill all the legal technicalities. Another person noticed this laches and immediately ran in to make a binding acquisition. The court ruled that despite the former's clear intention to make an acquisition, good intentions are not enough in law and the second person obtained a clear and unobjectionable title. (1)


At the other extreme, we have cases where a mistake gives us the opportunity to obtain property (or ideas) belonging to someone else. Common cases include: a (traceable) accidental wire transfer; an inadvertent e-mail containing valuable information; accidental overpayment of a bill or undercharge for merchandise. The Talmud states that if someone is due a payment but the amount paid is too high due to an evident error, then the money has to be returned. (2) Likewise, if a person makes a payment in the mistaken impression that he really owes the money, the money must be returned. (3) The Talmud discusses a parallel case where someone believed that his sale of land was valid; when his title was finally vindicated it was ruled that he was entitled to rent for the intervening years, since his failure to demand it was based on a mistaken impression. From this we infer a general principal, that a waiver made in error has no legal force. (4)


The most interesting case is that of negotiations. The ethics of negotiations is an underdeveloped area of ethics generally, because negotiations are a paradoxical interaction. Negotiations receive their validity from consent and agreement, yet the very nature of negotiations is uncertainty as to what the other side really is willing to pay or how much they are really willing to give up. A certain amount of hidden information is natural. At the same time, if the sides are totally deceitful then no effective negotiations can ever take place. So negotiations take place in the gray area where each side is obligated to "reveal one handbreadth and hide two".


Mistakes in negotiations are common. One common mistake is accidentally revealing confidential information, but on the other hand occasionally you get away with this because the other side assumes it must be just a ploy. (Is planting information in this way ethical? That's a topic for another column.) More to the point, sometimes one side fails to notice a very detrimental clause in a contract; sometimes a side may even carelessly submit a contract proposal which is to its own disadvantage.


The Talmud discusses a similar case, and concludes that the appropriate response is to draw the other side's attention to the agreement as a whole. A merchant offered Rav Kahana an unusual bargain, which created the suspicion of a mistake; Rav Kahana stated pointedly, "I'm relying on your calculation." (5) Likewise, in a bargaining situation a person could assert: "We're responding to your conditions." Your job does include making sure that the other side understands exactly what conditions they are agreeing to, but it is not your responsibility to ensure that these conditions are to their advantage.


It is legitimate for you to seek an agreement that is in your interest, but if there is an actual misunderstanding then there is a lack of proper consent. In case of doubt the best solution is that of Rav Kahana: call modest attention to the situation, by asking the other side to review the conditions and confirm "informed consent". A deal which is actually mistaken is really made in bad faith; it's bad ethics to enter into such a contract, and often bad business as well since it greatly increases the chances of a broken contract and of resentment and an unproductive business relationship.


The best course of action when presented with a seeming misstep in a negotiating situation is neither to aggressively seize the opportunity nor to meekly yield on your vital interests. Rather, you should ask the other side to re-examine the offer and confirm that they understand all the conditions and are willing to go ahead.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud, Bava Basra 54a (2) Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 63b, Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 332b. (3) Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 63b (4) Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 66b (5) Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 113b

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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration, is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem College of Technology. To comment or pose a question, please click here.

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