Rabbinical Reforms

Throughout the centuries of the Talmudic era, Chazal (the rabbis of the Talmud) repeatedly sought to change Jewish economic behavior. By and large, their aim was to reduce spending, more often than not with the ultimate goal of protecting the poor from other people’s thoughtless excess. This chapter will catalog and discuss many of Chazal’s attempts at market controls.

But why bother with the catalog? Many of those reforms haven’t been legally binding on Jewish communities for many centuries. And even if some of the conditions that inspired the rabbis’ efforts might seem to exist still in our time, there is today neither the mechanism nor anyone with the authority to reproduce their work. So why talk about them at all?

Because, through the medium of these ancient reforms, Chazal taught us how we should structure our own private and communal lives. How, in fact, to run a family, business or even educational institution while remaining loyal to the Torah’s spirit. Simplicity and restraint are qualities that might easily feel unattainable. The rabbis’ examples from this chapter could go a long way towards making them real.

At any rate, it’s worth a try.

Price Controls

A woman who has experienced five possible incidents of contaminating flow or five possible births [for each of which one’s obligation to bring a Temple offering is doubtful]…needs not bring (the other four) offerings. (A woman who has experienced) five definite incidents of contaminating flow or five definite births [for which a Temple offering is certain] may bring a single offering…(but) must still bring (the other four) offerings.

It once happened that the price of birds [used most often by women for the above-mentioned offerings] in Jerusalem rose to a gold dinar. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: “By this holy place (I swear) that I will not sleep tonight until (the price falls) to regular (non-gold) dinarim.” He then entered the beis din and taught “A woman who has experienced five definite incidents of contaminating flow or five definite births may bring a single offering…and need not bring (the other four) offerings.”1 The price of birds dropped that day to mere pennies. (Kerisus 8a)

Even though (Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel) thus reduced compliance with Torah law (i.e. not all the prescribed offerings would now be brought), it was “a time to act for the Lord” for if women would not find (affordable birds) they might not bring even one and they might consequently consume other offerings while still ritually contaminated. (Rashi)

It would seem that Chazal had the power to permit at least the passive neglect of Torah law if some significant greater good would be served. In this case, unfair consumer prices were effectively brought down through a kind of economic boycott.

It should be noted that it wasn’t primarily the plight of the poor themselves that inspired this act, but rather the chance that communal Torah observance could be compromised. Nevertheless, the power of mass economic action proved a most effective social lever.

Rav said: “Pots [that have been used previously for chometz] should be broken [before Passover].” Why not store them until after Passover and then use them in (a permitted way)? There is concern that people might use them even in a (non-permitted way). Shmuel (on the other hand) said: “Do not break them but (instead) leave them until after Passover and use them (in any fashion you prefer).” With this, Shmuel followed his own well-known approach, when [despite the fact that he was visiting the city ruled by his opponent, Rav] he told the earthenware pot manufacturers [who stood to profit from Rav’s strict ruling]: “You must sell your pots at true market value. But if you don’t, I will publicly rule like Rabbi Shimon” (i.e., like Shmuel’s own lenient opinion). (Pesachim 30a)

Again we see the power of Chazal being brought to bear to confront price gouging. And again it is accomplished through popular economic activity spurred by carefully applied halachic rulings.

Here is a similar example from a practical case in modern halacha:

If fishmongers raise their prices, it is appropriate to rule that people should not purchase any fish for a set number of weeks until the prices fall. The Be’er Hetiv quotes that one should not rule this way unless the prices have risen to more than a third above their normal levels. However, the Eliyahu Rabba and Pri Meggadim write that one should rule this way on behalf of the poor even if prices have risen less than a third. (Mishna Brura 242:2)

This consumer boycott is more pointed than the others as the rabbis are enjoined to use their halachic authority to directly organize their communities.2

Practical application? Organizing consumer spending patterns can possibly, if deployed carefully and under suitable rabbinic guidance, provide relief from economic pressures.3

Even communities themselves have the power, as a group, to control their local market conditions:

Residents of a city are permitted to regulate commercial weights and measures, market prices and wages and to impose fines on breeches. (Bava Basra 8b)

Incidentally, Chazal left a more permanent indication of their concern for price gouging:

Why did the rabbis place the blessing (requesting) years of plenty ninth (out of the original eighteen blessings of the Amida)? Rabbi Alexandri said: this corresponds to those who manipulate market values (for personal profit) as it is written “Smash the strength of evil…” and (King) David wrote those words in the ninth4 chapter (of Tehilim). (Megilla 17b)

Smash the strength of evil – these are the ones who inflate the price of grain and thus disrupt market prices. And how do we know that this verse is referring to those who disrupt market prices? Because it was also written in that chapter: “who hides in wait like a lion in his hut; he waits to attack the poor.” Now, do bandits lie in wait to attack the poor; do they not usually attack the rich? Rather, the verse is referring to those who disrupt market prices as most of their potential profit is from the poor. And of them David (the author of Psalms) begs Divine mercy with the words “smash the strength of evil and give satisfaction in the world”… (Rashi)

Limits to Personal Spending

Even individuals with the personal resources to safely afford luxuries are sometimes nevertheless required to restrict their spending if it might indirectly cause suffer to others:

[Mishna:] One should not take trays, pots, bowls or baskets to a house of mourning…

[Gemara:] The rabbis taught: originally, the wealthy would take gifts to the house of mourning in silver trays while the poor would take their gifts in wicker baskets of stripped willow and the poor were embarrassed. The rabbis therefore ruled that everyone should bring their gifts in wicker baskets of stripped willow (to protect the) honor of the poor.

The rabbis taught: originally, the rich would be given (traditional drinks) in the house of mourning using cups of white crystal while the poor used (cheaper) colored glass and the poor were embarrassed. The rabbis therefore ruled that everyone should drink from colored glass (to protect the) honor of the poor.

Originally, (undertakers) would uncover the faces of wealthy (bodies before burial) and cover the faces of the poor because the poor would be blackened from the widespread starvation and the poor were embarrassed. The rabbis therefore ruled that all faces should all be covered (to protect the) honor of the poor.

Originally, they would carry out the (bodies) of the wealthy on a divan and the poor on a simple stretcher and the poor were embarrassed. The rabbis therefore ruled that all bodies should be carried on stretchers (to protect the) honor of the poor.

Originally, they would light incense near those who had died of stomach ailments [to mask the inevitable smell] and those people living with stomach ailments were embarrassed. The rabbis therefore ruled that they should light incense under all bodies (to protect the) honor of those living with stomach ailments…

Originally, the costs of burying the dead became so much of a burden on surviving relatives – more even than the death itself – that relatives would abandon their dead and escape (to avoid the shame of being unable to keep up with the prevailing funeral standards) until Rabban Gamliel came and, disregarding his own honor, had himself buried in (simple) linen shrouds. The community emulated his behavior and had themselves similarly buried in linen shrouds… (Moed Katan 27a-27b)

There is no mistaking the theme which connects these reforms: individuals must consider how their consumption might potentially effect all members of a community. Any new practice – no matter how well-intentioned – could create enough social pressure among copycats to cause serious financial harm.

Practical application? Anyone, even an individual of more humble status, can find himself initiating some new practice. The more people who carefully assess their innovations for possible risk of harm, the fewer harmful innovations we as a community will face. Widespread awareness of a problem can only help.


The Torah requires anyone who is able, to provide cash loans upon request:

If you will lend money to My people, the poor man with you… (Shemos 22:24)

Rabbi Yishmael says: (the word) ‘if’ in the Torah always signifies a choice except for three cases [where one is legally obliged to act], and this is one of them. (Rashi)

Nevertheless, there were historical periods during which changing economic conditions made keeping this mitzva difficult. To restore lender confidence and ensure greater access to capital, the rabbis established a number of legal devices. Here’s one example:

(A loan contract written as a) pruzbol is not subject to Sabbatical (Shemita) annulment. This was one of the things that Hillel the Elder enacted. He saw people refraining from lending money to each other, thereby transgressing the Torah command “be careful lest your heart should become corrupted…” (Devarim 15:9). (He) therefore rose and enacted pruzbol.5 (Gittin 36a)

And here’s another:

According to Torah law, lenders (when unable to collect the cash they’re owned) can only claim from property of the lowest relative value (ziburis) as it is written (Devarim 24:11) ‘Outside (the borrower’s house) you will stand and the man to whom you lent will bring collateral out to you.’ What would a man normally bring out of his house? The cheapest of his property. So (if the Torah only allows a lender to collect from ziburis) why did the rabbis say that a lender collects from the mid-range (beinonis)6 of the borrower’s property? So as not to close the door (of opportunity) before potential borrowers.7 (Bava Kama 8a)

It seems that Chazal sought to facilitate the movement of crucial capital across class-lines – from rich to poor. This would seem designed to prevent, as much as possible, any cyclical deepening of the poverty suffered by certain ill-fated families and individuals. In fact, according to Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, with the very institutions of Shemita8 and of Yovel,9 the Torah itself apparently seeks just this goal:

Never can a clique of so called great landowners build itself up in the midst of a landless, and therefore dependent, pauperism when every fiftieth year the whole land reverts to its original division, and the richest goes back to the original acres of his heritage, and the poorest is given back the acres of his. (commentary to Bamidbar 25:34)

(In)conspicuous Consumption

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: the Jews have no days equal to the celebrations of the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippurim for on (those two days) the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white garments, (borrowed,) so as not to shame a girl who might not have her own…And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance among the vineyards (to attract the attention of potential husbands). What would they say? “Young man! Please raise your eyes and see what you should choose…” (Mishna, Taanis 26b)

The rabbis taught: a king’s daughter would borrow from the high priest’s daughter, the high priest’s daughter from the daughter of the deputy high priest, the daughter of the deputy high priest from the daughter of the (high priest) anointed for war and the daughter of the (high priest) anointed for war from the daughter of a plain priest and all Jews would borrow one from the other so as not to shame a girl who might not have her own. (Taanis 31a)

Very little that we do is truly private. Our choices in clothes tend to become particularly public statements that can influence the subsequent purchasing choices of many of those around us. So it is crucial that we use care and foresight to ensure that our actions should not inadvertently cause unnecessary suffering.

In other generations, wealthy individuals preparing for marriage would have cheerfully purchased progressively fancier outfits without regard for any larger social consequences. Their less fortunate sisters might well have felt forced to follow suit, placing an ever-increasing burden upon themselves and their families.

The girls of ancient Jerusalem,10 on the other hand, had different priorities. Surely the daughter of Israel’s king could well afford to wear whatever she thought would best catch the attention of the young men of her class. And surely dressing to make a good impression on her future husband was well within her rights. Yet, when planning to meet her husband for the first time, she willingly adopted the outward appearance of simplicity by choosing a plain white garment – and a borrowed one at that. Why? “So as not to shame a girl who might not have her own.”

Balanced Mitzva Observance

We certainly wouldn’t casually abandon halachic observance just because it’s expensive.11 But there might be some specific customs or even (normally) binding practices which financial pressures should displace. Here’s a ruling from the Men of the Great Assembly (אנשי כנסת הגדולה) to illustrate:

Rav Shemen bar Abba said to Rabbi Yochanan: Let us analyze. The Men of the Great Assembly established [the text and rules of] the Jews’ blessings, prayers, kiddushos and havdalos. Can we see exactly how they were established? [Rabbi Yochanan replied:] Originally (havdala) was to be said as part of the Amida. Later, as the Jewish community (in Israel) became wealthier, they established that (havdala) be recited separately over a cup of wine [as we do today]. When the Jewish community again became poor, simple insertion into the Amida was restored. (Brachos 33a)

We must assume that wine can have an important role in the havdala process. Nevertheless, the need to protect poorer Jews from financial pressure took precedence. In a very similar modern-day scenario, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein famously permitted the consumption (under certain conditions) of non-cholov Yisrael milk by individuals for whom the cost difference was a burden.12

With this in mind, someone having a difficult time keeping afloat financially might consult with a Torah scholar with whom he could develop a realistic “Torah budget” appropriate for his circumstances.

1In other words he sharply reduced the potential demand for birds by limiting the number of offerings that women were bound to bring – thereby forcing down the price.

2See Chasam Sofer (beg. of 242) who questions using the above-mentioned mishna in Kerisus as justification for the fishmongers boycott (which will, after all, cause the neglect of the halacha: as everyone involved must forgo their Shabbos fish portion for those weeks). Nevertheless, simple boycotts which don’t involve halachic conflict are not at issue.

3It is absolutely critical that such action must only be considered after sufficient research has proven that the offending prices are indeed unfair. Consulting someone within the affected industry – either retail or wholesale – to get an insider’s perspective is probably the only way to get the whole story.

4It is interesting to note (as Tosafos points out) that according to the way the modern Tanach is divided, this chapter is actually the tenth.

5The Torah forbids collecting loans that remain outstanding through the seventh year of the Shemita cycle (see Devarim. Chapter 15). Since, however publicly held debt is not subject to this restriction, Hillel encouraged debt holders to transfer the private loans owed to them into the control of bais din, thereby allowing them – as agents of bais din – to collect them even after Shemita.

6As opposed to the cheapest

7i.e., if a lender knew that, faced with trouble collecting a loan, he could claim only the cheapest of his borrower’s property in payment, he might not lend in the first place. The requirement that a borrower must repay using property of higher-quality, while appearing unnecessarily burdensome, actually increases his chances of getting the financial help he needs.

8during which most loans are annulled outright

9during which most ancestral lands in Israel which had been sold to raise cash, would be returned to their original owners. The original “sales” were actually closer to long-term leases.

10The mishna’s language does leave open the possibility that it was the girls themselves who chose such an inclusive format for these events. At the very least, they went along with the plan.

11In fact, halacha clearly mandates circumstances in which we must pay as much as one fifth of our worth rather than miss a positive Torah commandment. We must similarly give up everything we own to avoid transgressing a negative Torah commandment (ע’ שולחן ערוך סי תרנו ברמ”א).

12See Igros Moshe Yore Deah 1:47-49.

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