Black Friday is an American invention, which always falls on the last Friday in November, the day after the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
Days of thankful celebration for the successful harvest were a custom of Native American peoples – a form of Succot – although since the end of the 18th century, Thanksgiving marked the creation of the modern American democratic constitution.
Black Friday may have originated in Philadelphia on the date retailers began to make a profit (accounts, therefore, moving from ‘red’ to ‘black’), although it has now become the busiest shopping day of the year in western, capitalist societies.
There is, of course, nothing in Judaism prohibiting an owner selling at a reduced price, but Black Friday is often associated with ‘loss leaders’ and hyperbolic claims that can lead to inappropriate purchasing, that at best may be wasteful and at worst may lead to cycles of debt.
Judaism teaches that selling and buying, in common with all spheres of life, ought be guided by moral principles and propriety.
Jewish business ethics is a particular school of thought, but both seller and buyer have obligations that pre-date the invention of modern capitalism and the possibility of online shopping.
The Book of Leviticus (25:14) declares: “If you sell to or buy from your neighbour, you shall not wrong one another”.
From here arose the prohibition recorded by Maimonides that one must not cheat or deceive whether a seller or a buyer (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Mechirah 18:1), a sin for which the individual Jew and the community confess on Yom Kippur.
Unlike in English law, which stresses caveat emptor (buyer beware), Jewish law places a duty on the seller about quantity and quality, including the pointing out of flaws. The Holiness Code of Leviticus 19:36 demands: “…true scales, true weights, true dry and true liquid measures”.
Buyers too, however, are bound by a code, including for example the Mishnaic (Baba Metzia 4:10) teaching that: “One should not ask, ‘How much is this thing?’ if one has no intention of buying, since to do so raises false expectations and wastes the time of the seller.”
Black Friday is probably here to stay, but Judaism teaches that both seller and buyer have a duty to be careful and a responsibility to exercise action, in accord with the best moral principles Judaism lays down.
Danny Rich is Senior Rabbi of Liberal Judaism