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The Jewish Ethicist - Happy Returns

The Jewish Ethicist - Happy Returns

Can I buy a product with the intention of returning it?


Q. If a store has a two-week return policy, is it ethical to buy something from the store with the intention of using it and then returning it for money back?

A. As we explained in a previous column, in Jewish law every object has an unlimited money-back guarantee. The reason is that if there is a fundamental defect in a product, the sale is considered void. Maimonides writes:

"One who sells to his fellow land, or a slave, or an animal or other chattels and a defect is found which the customer did not know about, it can be returned even after a period of years, since it was a mistaken purchase."

However, this is conditioned on the fact that the purchaser did indeed intend to acquire the object; the problem is that it is defective. Even if the object is defective but the purchaser finds it satisfactory, he waives his right to return it.

Maimonides continues:

"But this is on the condition that he doesn't use the purchase after he discovers the defect, but if he uses it after he sees the defect he has waived [his right to void the sale] and he cannot return it." (1)

Every sale is conditioned on a "meeting of the minds," informed consent of buyer and seller regarding the terms of the sale. A seller may go beyond the letter of the law and allow the buyer to void the sale not only for an actual defect, but also for any characteristic the customer finds unsatisfactory. But the underlying principle is the same: the customer has reached the conclusion that his purchase was a mistake and he wants to nullify it. This is the exact opposite of someone who is making no mistake but on the contrary knows exactly what the item is, finds it satisfactory, and plans to enjoy and then return it.

It is worth noting that a "no questions asked" return policy is different from a "free trial". A free trial is exactly what the name suggests: an offer to try out a product and see if you like it. In this case the seller wants to convince you that the product (usually an unfamiliar one) is worth buying; the only way to do this is by giving you an opportunity to try it out. There's nothing wrong with taking something for a free trial without any firm intention to buy it even if you find it of value; the seller is betting that you will like it enough to buy it and agrees to adopt the risk that you might not.

The difference is that a return policy is generally for goods that the buyer is familiar with and knows that he wants; the seller is able to guarantee that the merchandise is satisfactory. A free trial is usually for a good that is unfamiliar; in order to convince the buyer that the object is worthwhile, he is willing to offer a free trial. It's not a problem that you doubt you will want to purchase the object; that's exactly why the seller is offering you the free trial!

However, even in this case it would be improper to use the free trial if you are totally familiar with the object and learn nothing from the trial. If a number of stores are offering free trials of a certain product and you go from one to the other asking to try it out, it's not a "trial" at all since you know very well what the product is.

Free trials were common already in the time of the Talmud. Wine sellers would allow potential customers to taste a bit of wine before deciding if they wanted to buy. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak told his students that tasting wine in this way is a forbidden subterfuge when they had no possibility of buying the wine (due to lack of means). This is a bad faith trial. But if the seller could convince you to buy if you really liked the product then you don't need any kind of prior intention or commitment.

SOURCES: (1) Maimonides Code, laws of sale 15:3 (2) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 129a



The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.


July 7, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Rox , July 14, 2007 6:47 AM

Retail is not "rent for free"

The article clearly states that buying with the blatant *intention* of using and returning is not exactly kosher.

I've worked in retail for almost ten years, and I see "free renters" all the time. They are those people that buy an item with the *explicit intention* of wearing it once or twice then returning essence, for example, they "rent" a $90 designer sweater for nothing. They "buy" their designer clothes to go out in on Friday and return everything on Monday when they're done with it.

The reality is, that the retail company might not lose anything from "free renters", but the *manufacturer* DOES, because usually worn items have to be damaged out and replaced or recompensated somehow at zero profit, and even at a loss.

Free renters cost SOMEONE in the long run. They are getting something for nothing. They are wasting the time of the store clerks and the manufacturers.

If you want a big screen TV for your Superbowl party, GO to a real rental or rent-to-own store. Don't "buy" a $1500 big screen TV with the intention of using it for two days, then coming back with some outrageous story that it doesn't work!

(4) Anonymous, July 13, 2007 9:45 PM

No doubt whatsoever!

The article is as clear as can be. Interesting to see historical Jewish sources quoted, but even without them I think the matter is simple, not just in terms of Jewish ethics, but in terms of universal ethics as well. I completely agree with Tanja Ciluia, in my opinion, there are at least 3 offenses here. To buy something without intending to keep it is lying, doing so contradicts the whole meaning of the word "buying", just look it up in the dictionary. To make use of an item and then return it for a full refund is, in fact, stealing: you are conspiring to acquire something for nothing, that is, without paying for it. And to pretend innocence while doing it is just blatant hypocrisy! I can't imagine anyone would have any doubts about it! Of course it is grossly unethical, if not simply illegal. As for Costco, they just close their eyes to this kind of trickery, but do it only up to a point: I myself have seen a manager blacklisting a customer for just such a thing, one laptop too many bought and returned used.

(3) Anonymous, July 10, 2007 6:52 PM

It doesn't reeally answer the question

I didn't understand, so are you allowed to buy something with the intention of returning it? Like lets say someone wants to buy a new shirt to wear (or I guess "try-out")only for that day and then return it the next day? Are you allowed because I have been told that like you cant waste a storekeeper's time or something so I'm not sure.
Please answer my question and send your answer to me!! Thank you!

(2) Mrs. D, July 10, 2007 4:21 PM

I have learned different

With due respect to the Rabbi for his explanation, which must certainly be totally valid and based on correct halachic sources, there were recent reasons for some of my family members to ask a Posek about participating in two or three store's return policy offers, though it seemed perhaps unadvisable. THe most blatant example would be Costco, where until recently one could purchase expensive electronic items and return them forever, in any condidtion, no questions asked, for cash. I was worried about my kids getting habitual about buying things like $300 digital cameras, enjoying them for 3 months, then returning them for an "upgrade" - would this become a chillul Hashem? They asked the store reps, who said this practice did not hurt the store whatsoever; they had an arrangement with the providing manufacturers they dealt with. Even Computers were under this policy, for a full year. (Return time limits have recently been decreased, but still exist) We asked a respected Posek in our area who allowed us to take advantage of the policy, after he heard all the details I mentioned above. Similar policies are honored at department stores for clothes and shoes, such as JC Penney...Any follow-up comments? I'd be interested.

(1) Tanja Ciluia, July 10, 2007 8:33 AM

Trial - and Error!

I would say this amounts to stealing; you are taking what is not yours - using an object without paying for the hire and doing so with a huidden agenda, whereas the shop potenially loses money, for others might have bought it in the time you had it. I also count goig to a shop and using perfume samplers before you go out, with no intention of buying it, uin this way. You are lying, and you are stealing, when you do this sort of thing.

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