|Parsha Perspectives: Behar: The Mitzvah to Buy Jewish|
|Written by Rabbi Tzvi Price|
Due to the recent recession, numerous communities across America have tried to find new and innovative ways to help their members. One novel idea implemented in many cities and towns has been the printing of local currency called 'scrip.' The idea is simple. A community creates its own money which can be purchased at local banks at a five percent discount. The owner of this scrip can then use it at participating businesses. Those businesses will then further circulate the money through the local economy by purchasing goods and services at other participating businesses. Eventually, someone might decide to cash in his scrip at the bank, but hopefully not until the scrip has succeeded in conserving the wealth of the community. In essence, everyone who participates in the local scrip system has agreed to preferentially treat the local businesses that honor the currency, giving those businesses an economic edge over their non-local competitors.
This idea might sound new, but we Jews have been doing business under a similar system for a very long time. However, our system does not need a five percent incentive to keep it operating. Nor does it require the printing of any 'funny money.' It works because of one thing and one thing only - our desire to promote each other's financial success by buying from and selling to our fellow Jew whenever possible. Taking everything into consideration, we do a pretty good job of turning that desire into action, and it gives us a real economic advantage. But it's not just a desire, it's a pasuk in this week's Parshah.
In Parshas Behar (Vayikra 25, 14) the Torah states, "And when you make a sale to your fellow [Jew] or when you buy from the hand of your fellow [Jew], a man may not cheat his brother." The Toras Cohanim, a medrash halachah on Sefer Vayikra, tells us that this pasuk teaches us, among other things, to favor a Jew over a non-Jew with regard to our business dealings:
From where do we know that if you are going to sell something, sell it to a Yisroel, your friend? The Torah tells us the pasuk "And when you make a sale to your fellow [Jew]...." From where do we know that if you are going to buy something, buy it from a Yisroel, your friend? The Torah tells us the pasuk "Or when you buy from the hand of your fellow [Jew]..."
Sounds straightforward; favor a person who is close to you before a stranger. However, there is a great deal of debate among the halachic authorities as to the severity and scope of this obligation. The range of opinions is striking. At one extreme, there is a quite lenient minority opinion that considers this halachah to be nothing more than the Torah's good advice. Of course, when you get good advice from the Torah, you should try to follow it. However, not doing so would not be considered a transgression. It would just be considered a very unwise decision.
At the other extreme, the Sh"ut Rema, Siman 10, rules that this passage from the Toras Cohanim is absolutely obligatory and requires that we buy from our fellow Jew even if the same item is being sold by a non-Jew at a somewhat significant discount. The majority of authorities have opinions that fall somewhere in the middle. Not surprisingly then, we find a similar range of behavior in the Torah world regarding this subject. While some are quite concerned to try to buy solely from Jewish businesses, others do not consider it a high priority. Both views have halachic precedence.
At this point, the reader might be asking himself, "If there is such a diversity of rabbinic opinion and common practice, practically speaking, what should I do?" Although it may sound imprecise, the answer that the present-day authorities give to this question is 'Do your best.' Every person has his own unique personal and economic situation, and the halachah reflects that fact by providing a great deal of leeway. That being said, Hashem does expect His People to go out of their comfort zone. Look out for situations where you can favor your fellow Jew. Don't ignore the subject altogether. Work out guidelines and stick to them. You will find that there are many more easy opportunities to fulfill this halachah than you may have thought. And maybe, you will develop the desire to go beyond that to the situations which are not so easy.
In order to develop your own personal guidelines, one must have an understanding of the three main halachic categories that organize this subject and each category's general requirements. They are:
1. The item is being offered by the Jewish business at the same or lower price; one should make a strong effort to patronize the Jewish business.
2. The item is being offered by the Jewish business at a slightly higher price; one should make some effort to patronize the Jewish business.
3. The item is being offered by the Jewish business at a significantly higher price; one need only make an effort to patronize the Jewish business if the business is faltering.
This seems simple enough. However, as the reader will soon learn, determining to which category a purchase belongs is not always so easy.
People make a common mistake when thinking about this subject. They feel that it is all or nothing. Since they cannot buy everything at Jewish stores, they might as well not try at all. Learning how to distinguish a situation by placing it in its correct category will prove very helpful in avoiding this serious mistake.
BUYING EQUALLY OR LOWER PRICED ITEMS FROM THE JEWISH STORE
When a Jewish business is offering an item or service at the same price as its non-Jewish competition, there is every reason to patronize the Jewish establishment. The Torah expects, if not commands, that of us. Although it is often the case that Jewish businesses cannot compete on price with their non-Jewish competition (think Walmart), there are many situations where they can. In those cases, one should definitely make the effort to help the Jewish establishment by making the purchase there.
There are many instances where the price does not even go into the decision where to buy. For example, there is no reason to fill a prescription at a non-Jewish pharmacy or obtain medical supplies at a non-Jewish medical supply company if the costs are covered by insurance. Travel agents, insurance agents, and real estate agents, all receive standard commissions that are usually set by their industry. Often, the commissions are not paid by the customer, but rather by the company that they represent. Therefore, there should be no reason to choose a non-Jewish agent over a Jewish one. A similar situation occurs when a Jewish-owned business is part of a franchise. For example, you may find that a Jew owns an Exxon station, a Midas muffler shop, or a U-Haul rental. A franchise's prices are usually determined by the franchisor, and therefore, should be on par with those of the non-Jewish competition. In all these cases, one should make an all-out effort to patronize the Jewish-owned business.
In our day and age, the issue of convenience plays an important role in a consumer's decision about who will get his business. We live in a fast-paced world. We also live in a world that focuses on pleasure and ease. This is a serious issue with regard to our responsibility to favor Jewish businesses. A situation can occur in which a Jewish establishment has equal pricing, but may not be equal in regard to the convenience of its location, the speed of its service or its ambience.
The halachah is quite clear about this issue. The Mahara"m Shi"k, Ch.M 32, quoted by numerous later authorities, rules that tirchah, inconvenience and physical difficulty, should not play a role in determining whether to patronize a Jewish establishment. In the words of the Mahara"m Shi"k, "How can it be that a Jew would not want to put himself out for his fellow Jew's livelihood? After all, does it not say [in Mishle 21:21] 'He who pursues charity and kindness will find life, charity, and honor.'" When the inconvenience or time involved in patronizing a Jewish store is very significant compared to that of the non-Jewish store, one might legitimately allow himself to be lenient. However, if possible, a halachic authority should be consulted.
Sometimes, the price of an item might be the same at both the Jewish and the non-Jewish store, but the warranty, return policy, or service department may not compare favorably. The halachah considers these aspects of a purchase to be legitimate financial considerations, and therefore, can be used in determining whether an item is being offered at an equal price. Similarly, travel or shipping expenses that would be incurred in order to purchase the item can be included in the cost of the item.
A situation can occur in which a Jewish store is offering an item at the same price as its non-Jewish competition; however, the store does not have it in stock at the moment, or the store is not open. In that case, one certainly may purchase the item from the non-Jewish store. At that moment, the Jewish store is not considered to be in competition with the non-Jew. Similarly, if the two competing stores are stocking items that are only similar but not the same, then they are not considered to be in competition and one may buy the item offered by the non-Jew.
One final note with regard to equal pricing. When going on a trip for groceries, the following dilemma can often occur. The Jewish store might be offering similar pricing on some items, but on other items they just do not compete. For instance, large chain stores often offer deeply discounted prices on a few items in order to get the customer into the door. As we have said, generally speaking, one should make every effort to buy equally priced items at the Jewish store. However, if one plans on buying a number of items together, one need consider only the total price of all the items together in determining whether those items are equally priced. In other words, when going on a shopping trip which would come out cheaper at the non-Jewish grocery store, one need not purchase the equally priced items at the Jewish store, and the cheaper items at the non-Jewish store. However, as we shall see, one might want to strive for the next level of observance which might require that the entire purchase be made at the Jewish store.
BUYING SLIGHTLY HIGHER PRICED ITEMS FROM THE JEWISH STORE
A higher level for which to strive is to make the financial commitment to buy at Jewish stores even when the costs are slightly higher. An argument exists among the halachic authorities with regard to this level of observance. While some are of the opinion that the Torah does not require this level of observance, others consider this to be an absolute Torah obligation. Generally speaking, when halachic authorities argue as to whether or not there exists a mitzvah d'oraysa, a commandment from the Torah, the stringent opinion should be considered normative halachah. In his discussion of this issue, The Chafetz Chaim in Ahavas Chesed (Nesiv haChesed, 12) takes a position which is somewhere in the middle. He rules that this level of observance is considered to be a Torah directive, but it is to some extent optional. The Torah does not view someone who is lax in observing this level as having shirked an absolute obligation.
Thus, from a halachic perspective, a strong argument can be made that a person should try to abide by this level of observance. Furthermore, when many are feeling the pinch, those that are doing fairly well economically should understand the importance of doing more to help financially than what is minimally required of them. Committing to this standard is a big step toward that end. Importantly, a number of authorities rule that this level of observance is not expected with regard to purchases and dealings done for business purposes since that has a direct affect on one's income.
After committing oneself to patronizing Jewish stores even when they are charging a slightly higher price, one should ask an obvious question. What is the definition of 'a slightly higher price?' The answer to this question is quite simple, yet quite complex. The simple answer is that the halachah leaves it up to you to decide. Each person must decide based on his economic situation, his spiritual ambitions, and the effect his decision will have on those around him. In addition, the specifics of each store may come into play. Consultation on this complex decision with one's halachic authority is highly recommended.
BUYING SIGNIFICANTLY HIGHER PRICED ITEMS FROM THE JEWISH STORE
Generally speaking, there is no requirement to buy an item from a Jewish establishment if it is significantly higher in price. However, there is one very important exception. In Parshas Behar, the pasuk says, "If your brother will become impoverished and his means falter while you are near, strengthen him - whether he is a convert or a resident - so that he can live with you."(Vayikra 25:35) The commentaries explain that in this pasuk the Torah commands us to do all that we can to keep a person from becoming poor. Therefore, we have an absolute obligation to help a faltering storeowner from losing his business.
The Minchas Yitzchak (3:129), quoting this pasuk, rules that it is a mitzvah d'oraysa to make one's purchases from a faltering business in order to help it stay afloat. The Minchas Yitzchak states that this obligation applies even when the store's prices are significantly higher than its non-Jewish competition. There are only two limitations to this obligation. The buyer does not need to go significantly beyond his own financial means as determined by the laws of charity, and the faltering storeowner cannot charge above the fair market price for his goods.
Let us conclude with a story that will help put this entire subject into perspective. The story appears in a biography about Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, zt"l. When he lived in Monsey, his wife frequented a certain Jewish store that had recently opened in the neighborhood. While there were a number of non-Jewish stores of that kind in Monsey, this was the first time that a Jewish one had opened. After a while, Rebbetzin Kaminetzky stopped shopping there due to the store's high prices. When Reb Yaakov heard this, he called the storeowner and told him that he should do everything in his power to lower his prices. Reb Yaakov explained that since it is the responsibility of a Jewish community to support its Jewish businesses, there would be a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of Hashem's Name, if the store would close.
This story beautifully illustrates the cooperation that must occur between the Jewish merchant and the Jewish consumer. Each side has to do his part. The Jewish storeowner has a responsibility to keep his prices competitive, and the Jewish customer has to make a real effort to make his purchases at Jewish-owned establishments. That kind of cooperation makes for a real win-win situation. And it makes for something that goes way beyond the realm of economics and mutual benefit. It makes for a true Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d's Name.
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