The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have wronged the poor and needy, and have oppressed the stranger unlawfully.(Ezekiel 22:29)
Ezekiel's lament emphasizes that oppression in general, and especially oppression of the needy and the distressed, is always an extremely immoral and illegal act. In the Bible, “oppression” describes the unilateral taking of another person's property or depriving her of her rights. Yet, sometimes even an apparently voluntary agreement might be oppressive. Preventing oppression, therefore, has became one of the declared aims of contractual doctrine, as in the well-known American doctrine of unconscionability.
Unconscionability and oppression are broad concepts that describe a wide-ranging array of cases and situations. Not surprisingly, therefore, despite the formidable and complex body of legal writing on the unconscionability doctrine, a great deal of ambiguity remains as to its theoretical basis, as well as its practical content.
In this article I seek to enrich the modern Western discussion by analyzing Jewish law doctrine which addresses the issue of oppressive exploitative contracts, an approach which is both unique and to date largely neglected by scholars in the area. This Jewish law doctrine developed in response to a specific kind of oppressive contract, in which a semi-monopolistic party exploits the distress of a needy party in order to demand an above-market price (hereinafter referred to as oppressive-exploitative contracts).