Q&A – April 2012 – Parnassa : “Jewish Life” magazine
Chief – it’s getting harder to live for more and more people….
Poverty is a problem that our community has confronted and I would say very successfully, given the nature of these problems, with the welfare and outreach initiatives that we have. But in a certain sense a more pervasive challenge is the struggle for ordinary families to come out every month. The cost of loving is high, people are paying for private medical, private education, and private security – and these costs make it increasingly difficult to come out.
But being Jewish makes everything even more expensive! Jewish Day Schools, Kosher meat and chicken…the list goes on…
There is a principle in the Gemara that says the Torah has compassion for the money of the Jewish people.
What does this mean?
This means that there is a sensitivity in Halachah to financial hardship, going out of the way to lower the financial barriers as much as possible.
How? We can’t stop buying kosher meat surely…
No, but for example – one of the factors that a posek dealing with a complex halachic shaila (question) will consider is the financial loss that will be caused by the decision. So if there is a dispute amongst the different opinions, let’s say a more stringent and a more lenient one, the financial loss can direct the decision toward the more lenient opinion in order to alleviate that suffering, subject of course to many other conditions as well. And I must add here that the paskening of Halachah is a complex science that can never be oversimplified – I’m just giving a fraction of an idea here for us to understand this principle at play.
That’s all very well but practically this doesn’t do anything to help the problem… kosher meat is still through the roof?
Much effort has been put in from the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) to look carefully at the prices of kosher chicken, and a detailed inquiry was launched with findings – published on the UOS website for the public to see – http://www.uos.co.za/uos/content/kashrutPriceCommision_detailed.pdf
What was the outcome?
I would encourage anyone interested to read the report for themselves and make up their own mind. The basic findings made by independent experts were that these industries operate within the constraints of a limited market with overheads, and given this, the prices are within range of reasonableness. Economies of scale play a big part in this; approximately 600 000 kosher chickens are slaughtered in SA in an entire year. Compare this with around 80 million non-kosher chickens flooding the market per year. According to the report, it is simply not possible to maintain costs at the same level as non-kosher when volumes are so low.
On a more positive note, if you look at the kashrut infrastructure we have here, it is quite remarkable; we can proudly boast, under our Beth Din and UOS, an internationally recognised kashrut department on a par with and, in many ways, better than the biggest agencies of America, Israel and Europe – and look at how many general products are available to the kosher consumer (approx.. 13000 and climbing each day).
Obviously there are no easy solutions. Financial stress is a very difficult issue for people and it would be wrong to minimise it, but there is also a question of attitude and mindset.
The Gemara says that money that you spend in honour of Shabbos or Yom Tov, or on doing a mitzvah, is not taken out of the livelihood that was allocated to you at Rosh Hashana. So we have to realise that whatever challenge we face in life – everything is from Hashem, even if we don’t understand why we have to go through it, and that it is ultimately for our good. One shouldn’t think that they would be in a better financial position if it were not for our service of Hashem – that if I just could work on Shabbos, or skip Pesach, I would be ok. Whatever we spend on mitzvot we get reward for in the next world, but more than that money spent in the service of Hashem is regarded as Hashem’s expenses. Our tradition is that this expenditure is paid for by Hashem! It’s not coming out of the money allocated to you at Rosh Hashana, it is extra money you wouldn’t have if not for these mitzvot!
What about business ethics. Can we go into competition with another Jew?
The halacha allows for free competition and even encourages it, as long as it is fair and honest. You can’t draw down more parnassa from Hashem by doing anything that is not allowed, or living in conflict with Torah values and laws.
But surely this competition takes away from someone else’s parnassa?
The Gemara debates the ethics of free market competition, and concludes that it is halachically permissible provided that one does not engage in unfair or dishonest business strategies. One of the reasons given is that since everything comes from Hashem, it is impossible to take away somebody else’s livelihood. The Gemara goes as far as to praise free competition as the way of ensuring the best prices and quality for consumers. Today, the effectiveness of the free market is unquestioned in the world, and our great Sages of the Talmud established that thousands of years ago already.
So how do we stay positive in tough financial times?
An important guiding principle in our lives is that livelihood comes from Hashem and we have to view Him as the source. Davening is an important part of it, but we also have to put effort into our mitzvoth and sometimes that involves financial effort. Our sages tell us that we don’t rely on miracles – so we have to work to the best of our ability. Hashem brings blessing down into the world through our actions, and when we don’t act, then we are asking Him to put that parnassa money into our bank account through supernatural means, and it definitely doesn’t work like that. On the other hand, after we have put in our efforts, we must believe that everything comes from Hashem. So it’s about working hard and then giving over the results of that effort to Hashem, accepting our situation with the faith. Livelihood is one of the areas that tests our faith in the deepest possible way.