פרשת ויקרא - Parshat Vayikra
The Social Protest
Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman
The social protest that began in Israel last summer is nothing more than a version of a similar trend known to exist in previous generations. Our rabbis were very strict about overpricing, and across generations did more than just preach – they took action. Leaders in various generations intervened in the ways of the market and commerce: promoting the lowering of prices, expressing concern over the high cost of living and protecting the weaker parts of society by going as far as to issue special regulations.
This week's Sedra – Vayikra – also ties in here. One of the regulations introduced by Raban Shimon Ben Gamliel has to do with overpricing. At the time, because of the many sacrifices, the price of poultry soared. The Mishna tells us that each nest cost a golden Dinar, a very high price in those days. Raban Shimon Ben Gamliel grew angry and swore he will not rest until prices are lowered. The Mishna tells us he proceeded to go to the Beth Din and teach a new rule: that in order to lighten the burden of a woman who had recently given birth, she may bring just one nest to the Temple as a sacrifice. By doing so, Raban Shimon Ben Gamliel showed courage and public leadership, as well as great responsibility, and consequently, the prices of nests went down considerably.
Raban Shimon Ben Gamliel the First was the head of the Sanhedrin near the time of the destruction of the Temple. At that time, the Sanhedrin sat in Jerusalem, in the commercial area of Temple Mount, to which it was forced to move. Times were hard, with frequent riots, rebellions and wars between Jews.
Raban Shimon Ben Gamliel's new regulation regarding the woman who had recently given birth is only one in a chain of financial regulations issued across generations. Hillel Hazaken instituted the Pruzbul, allowing the rich to lend to the needy without worrying they would lose their money in a Shemita year. Shmuel warned those who sold Haddasim to sell untrimmed Haddasim at their real value, or else he would declare that one may use three trimmed Haddasim on Sukkot. On a separate matter he warned cauldron sellers that if they overcharge their customers, he would issue a new Halakha whereby old cauldrons may be used after Passover.
In later generations we find many cases in which the great Jewish rabbis issued regulations to counter overpricing, the most famous of which was the one by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Krochmal, author of the response Tzemach Tzedek, against the overpricing non-Jewish merchants who saw that Jews buy fish for Shabbat at all costs, and overcharged for them. Rabbi Menachem Mendel declared that fish should not be bought for Shabbat until the price is low enough to allow the poor to honor Shabbat with fish too. The Hafetz Haim also spoke of the price of fish for Shabbat in his commentary on the Mishna, expressing his concern for the weaker parts of society.
We seem to be living in a free market era, but even in our day and age it is important to intervene in the market game. A free market should only be allowed to exist for those commodities that man can choose whether or not to consume, but for basic essentials, where no choice is involved, the rules of the free market should not apply. In the same vein the Rambam set the following Halacha:
בית דין חייבין לפסוק השערים ולהעמיד שוטרין לכך ולא יהיה כל אחד ואחד משתכר כל מה שירצה אלא שתות בלבד יפסקו להם בשכרם.
The Beth Din must determine the rates and appoint officers to keep them so as to refrain from having each person earning what they will, for they should determine their earnings as one sixth.
He then further clarifies his intention:
במה דברים אמורים בדברים שיש בהם חיי נפש כגון יינות שמרים וסלתות
What are we speaking of? Items that provide for the soul, such as wines, yeasts and fine flour.
Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman is a member of the World Zionist Organization and head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora.