Who invented loss-leaders? Free give-aways? Sales promotions are not modern inventions – they have been with us since time immemorial.
The Mishna on today’s daf discusses these kinds of promotions and the permissibility of their use. We find that Rabbi Yehuda forbids a storekeeper from giving out treats to small children, since that will give him an unfair advantage. Similarly, he forbids a storekeeper from lowering his prices to attract clients, since he is taking them from his competitors. The Hakhamim of the Mishna disagree, arguing that someone who lowers prices should be praised rather than vilified. The Gemara explains the reasoning of the Hakhamim by saying that the storekeeper can argue that his competitor is welcome to offer similar – and even more generous promotions – if he wants to compete.
One business practice that the Mishna clearly forbids is “prettying up” merchandise in order to trick people when they are considering its purchase. To illustrate this ruling, the Gemara tells of a slave who dyed his hair and his beard black and approached Rava and offered himself for sale. Rava responded by quoting the Mishna in Massekhet Avot (1:5) that poor people should be members of your household. Since Rava fulfilled this dictum he had a lot of help at home and had no need for a slave. The man then approached Rav Pappa bar Shmuel, who agreed to the purchase. When Rav Pappa asked him to fetch water, he washed out the dye and responded “I am even older than your father” indicating that he could not be expected to draw water.
The Rashba explains that this slave was a Jewish man who wanted to work in a Jewish home, and therefore offered himself for “sale,” but Rashi suggests that this was a case of an eved kena’ani – a non-Jewish slave who had been partially set free by his original master.