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Supporting Local Businesses During Corona

“Ask the Rabbi” column, reprinted with permission of Texas Jewish Post.
By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, DATA Rosh Kollel

Dear Friends,

I have received many questions regarding the support of our local vendors.

For the past nine months we have been living in very precarious times on multiple levels. In this article we would like to discuss one of the key issues which has arisen due to lockdowns and social distancing – which has led numerous people to prefer to stay home and shop online. This has led to the struggle of local businesses to stay open and to survive during this pandemic.

Here in Dallas, although the situation is not quite as dire as in parts of New York and Israel where numerous Jewish shops and stores have closed permanently and many more are in danger of the same. Nonetheless, many of our own local Dallas Jewish businesses are under great pressure and for the most part are truly struggling.

Even before Corona local businesses were under much pressure due to the ease of online shopping or people seeking the most convenient location and best prices, against which smaller businesses have trouble competing. And coupled with greatly reduced traffic during the pandemic, many are struggling to stay open, often with great sacrifice, their very livelihood depending on their success to do so.

This past year has been a challenge to a wide range of businesses, most obviously restaurants and caterers, retail stores of all types, and also service providers, from doctors and dentists, real estate agents and consultants of all types, handymen and construction contractors and the list goes on…

With regards to the food vendors, for the purpose of this discussion, we are referring to the kosher establishments – where the issue is obviously not that their consumers are throwing off kashrus and switching to non-kosher catering, rather people are rarely holding events that require catering.

With regards to restaurants, many are preferring, due to the pandemic, not to eat out at all, putting these providers on the brink of collapse, [although curb-side pickup and delivery options are available].

This situation raises a number of halachic and ethical questions:

  • What is our obligation with regards to these, our local establishments?
  • Are we required to go out of our way to patronize them, at times with less convenience or even at a loss, paying a higher price than that which we could pay online or at a larger chain store or a co-op?
  •  If so, how much of a loss or at what inconvenience would we be expected to absorb to support local Jewish businesses?
  • Should we go out of our way, at times, to purchase a meal from a local kosher restaurant although we can cook far more cheaply at home, just to support them?
  • What if we, ourselves, are going through difficult financial times?

As with every moral question, we look into the Torah and Halachic literature which is the source for Jewish law and ethics – to gain a modicum of clarity in this crucial issue which affects the livelihood of many of our fellow Jews.

The Mitzvah

There is an obscure, not-so-well-known mitzvah which, upon reflection, we will find is the key to our discussion.

The Torah states, “If your brother is becoming impoverished and his means falter…you must strengthen him…so that he

can continue to live with together with you”, (Vayikra 25:35). This is known as the mitzvah of “vehechezakta bo”, “you should strengthen him”.

The Midrash Halacha, Toras Kohanim, (loc. cit) explains this mitzvah with the following example: If you see a person struggling to keep his burden aloft on his donkey, immediately help him to adjust the burden so that it should not fall; all it takes is one to help him keep it aloft, but once it falls, sometimes even five people can’t lift it up.

So, too, if a fellow Jew is struggling with his or her business or livelihood and – not yet considered poor – but “becoming impoverished”, meaning that it is tottering and all could collapse, it’s an obligation to help him or her out now with a grant or a loan, or to give them a side job to complement their business so that their livelihood shouldn’t collapse and become truly impoverished. Because if that happens, it will be exponentially more difficult to pick them back up and get them back on their feet.

This mitzvah is codified by the Rambam, Maimonides, (Matnos Aniim 10:7) and Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, (Yo”D 249:6), where they list 8 levels of Tzedakah, the highest of which is this mitzvah, to enable a person to remain standing on his or her own feet and not need the handouts of another.

The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed ch. 21) brings sources that fulfilling this mitzvah brings one the gift of longevity, and a blessing that he or she should never have to be on the receiving end.

Over 60 years ago (5719), a question was posed to a great authority, Rav Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss of England, (later, the Chief Rabbi of the Bedat”z in Jerusalem). For the first time, chain stores began to open in London, challenging numerous small shops and businesses who could not begin to cope with the tremendously cheaper prices the chain stores were offering because of the volume they handled. This was threatening to put many small shops out of business and these Jews would lose their livelihood. [This in itself is in inevitable result of free enterprise, and the same fate has befallen untold small businesses in small towns throughout this country when stores such as Walmart and Costco moves in].

Rav Weiss, in response, invokes this mitzvah of v’hechezakta bo, which would require one to give of their own means to support another that they should not collapse. (Minchas Yitzchok, vol. 3 # 129).

The same would apply in our situation today. If one could support a local Jewish business but could find the same item online at a better price, the mitzvah of v’hechezakta bo would require us to support the local Jewish business.

Even if one doesn’t necessarily need that item, or normally would cook at home, if there is a Jewish business or kosher restaurant or caterer who is in danger of closing and losing their parnassa, their livelihood, this mitzvah would tell us to support them now, to help them “keep the burden on the donkey”, rather that the business failing and have to try to lift it back up.

One important caveat which will make this much more palatable is that, since this mitzvah is in the category of Tzedakah, one may use their “maaser” money to make up the difference that he or she is losing to support the business from closing. [Maaser is referring to the 10% we are required to tithe from our earnings and give to Tzedakah. This mitzvah would fulfill the requirements of giving].

Although the website with the lower prices might also be supporting a Jewish business which needs support as well, still it would be incumbent upon us to support the local business first. This is learned from the Talmudic teaching, which is codified in Jewish law, that “aniyei ircha v’aniyei ir acheres, aniyei ircha kodmin”, or if you have limited funds and are solicited to support the poor of your city and the poor of another city, those of your city precede those of the other locale, (See Rambam, Matnos Aniyim 7:13).

This mitzvah, vehechezakta bo, applies to one who is poor or could become poor if he or she loses their source of livelihood should the business fail. It also applies to the hiring of a Jewish contractor, painter and the like if that is their source of income. (Of course, this is assuming the local business offers equivalent service or merchandise that one would receive from the others). 

This mitzvah also entails supporting a local business even though it may be far more convenient to order online. The mitzvah of Tzedakah applies even when one is inconvenienced to perform it. As any other mitzvah, which we are required to fulfil it despite a level of inconvenience!

[Especially today when, in many if not most cases, even local businesses are accessible either online or by delivery, and nearly all offer curbside pickup during the pandemic].

This doesn’t mean that one can never buy online or from a more convenient store, especially when the item one needs is not available from the local Jewish vendor. It means to be more sensitive and mindful, when possible, that the purchase of a simple item can be transformed and elevated to become a mitzvah and help ensure the livelihood of a fellow Jew!  

Not Their Livelihood

It is important to point out that this mitzvah of vehachazakta bo would not be applicable if the shop owner does not rely upon the business for their livelihood, rather it either provides extra income or they run the shop for the good of the community. To support such a business would not come under the category of Tzedakah.

Even in that case, however, there is an additional mitzvah we shall discuss.

The Torah says, “When you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, do not aggrieve one another”, (Vayikra 25:14). The simple meaning of this verse is a prohibition on the seller not to overcharge and to the buyer not to coerce the seller to undercharge, a complicated law not for this discussion.

The Midrash Toras Kohanim on that verse, cited by Rashi, says that the verse, emphasizing “your fellow”, is hinting to another mitzvah; when one has a choice to buy or sell their wares to a Jew or a gentile, one should prefer the Jew.

This is not a racist statement. Rather, we are commanded to look at or fellow Jew as family, giving them precedence as we would our own brother or sister. [Or – what should be with a brother or sister!]

The authorities of Jewish law say the same applies to hiring, such as a contractor and the like, and to lending or borrowing. (See Ahavas Chesed, Laws of Lending 5:6 and Minchas Yitzchok, vol. 3 #129).

There is much discussion among the authorities whether this concept is obligatory – or a mitzvah – or only a proper way of conducting oneself, but not an obligation.

 Most authorities rule it is obligatory, but only if the difference in price or the amount lost in doing so is a “small amount”, the precise definition of which the rabbis struggle to define. [Invoking the classical Jewish answer: it depends!]

As with the previous mitzvah, one would be allowed to use their maaser/tithing funds to make up the difference, should there be one, to fulfill this mitzvah.

This concept, which is an important one in the Torah laws of commerce, would apply even if both the buyer and seller are wealthy. This concept is not in the realm of Tzedakah, rather to treat our fellow Jew as family.

This would apply today as an additional ethical reason to choose our local Jewish businesses, where it applies.

There is a tremendous amount of further discussion on these concepts in Halachic literature and their ramifications, not to be discussed in the purview of this lecture.

Summary

In summary, it is truly our obligation to support our local Jewish businesses, especially when they are the source of livelihood of their owners.

We need to recognize that our local businesses are a tremendous source of strength to our communities. We gain much by them being with us and owe a debt of gratitude to them for their dedication to us, and tonight is an opportunity to express our heartfelt thanks to them for all they do for us. Our appreciation requires us to go out of our way to ensure their survival.

[This is, of course, a two-way street; the businesses also need appreciate their customers and not take them for granted and do their best make it as inviting and easy as possible to shop with them!]

Many years ago I saw, in a furniture store, a stack of yellow pages for all of the coreligionists of a certain religion in Dallas, quite a thick book in fact! By doing so, the members of that religion are doing their best to take care of each other.

There is a list of local Jewish businesses, in formation, now available on www.dojlife.com , (an incredible local website which brings together our Jewish community in many ways). Everyone should peruse that list. Any business not listed there should make sure they contact that site and become represented.

It is our hope and prayer that our local vendors and we all survive this pandemic in the best way possible.

If we all strengthen each other during these times, we will emerge from them stronger than ever! May Hashem give us the strength, means and wisdom to be there for each other, as one family!

#ShopJewishDallas Business Directory

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