This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Price is Wrong *

The past year has been marked by a great deal of unrest, much of it provoked by frustration at the soaring cost of living. Last summer, the Israeli middle classes erupted into vocal protests in response to the exorbitant price tags on cottage cheese. And of course much of the industrialized world has been agitated by demands to occupy Wall Street and other perceived bastions of capitalist exploitation.

These concerns are likely to be compounded when it comes to the expenditures required for maintaining a commitment to traditional Jewish life in such budget items as kosher food and private schools.

The high price of being Jewish is not a new concern. The Torah already allowed for variable offerings to be brought for certain transgressions depending on the sinner’s economic circumstances. Even so, the prices of sacrifices could become prohibitively expensive.

A tradition to that effect is recorded in the Mishnah. For certain complicated cases involving impurity associated with childbirth and multiple miscarriages, the prevailing law was that several offerings had to be brought in order to effect purification. Although such sacrifices should not have been particularly onerous—a pair of pigeons or doves was the standard unit—the Mishnah relates that the heavy demand served to inflate the prices of the doves to absurd proportions: twenty-five gold denars for a pair of birds.

The precise circumstances of the situation are difficult to reconstruct. The ritual issues that were described by the Mishnah sound very rare and unlikely, so it is not obvious how they could have caused such an extreme spike in the price of a common commodity. Perhaps the Mishnah mentioned this particular case as but one example of a more widespread tendency of religious authorities to make stringent rulings that failed to make allowances for the financial hardships that they were causing to Jews with limited incomes.

At any rate, the Patriarch Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel found the situation utterly intolerable and set his sights to remedying it. He took a solemn oath in the name of the holy sanctuary that he would not go to bed that night until he had managed to slash the price of doves by ninety-five percent, to a single silver denar. He accomplished this by issuing a new halakhic ruling, that in those cases of multiple miscarriages, only a single  pair of doves would now be required.

The Mishnah concludes that Rabban Simeon’s success exceeded his hopes by far. Before the day was through, the cost of a pair of doves had plummeted to a quarter of a silver denar—a mere 1% of the previous inflated price.

While it is puzzling to historians how a rabbinic ruling about an obscure area of cultic law could have such an instantaneous and radical impact on market prices, Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel’s decree has had an enduring influence on Jewish legal philosophy, as a precedent for judicial activism on behalf of beleaguered consumers.

For precisely that reason, it appears that not all the commentators were comfortable with the proposition that ritual requirements could be relaxed for the sake of social and economic convenience. Therefore, some preferred to soften the Mishnah’s message, arguing that Rabban Simeon had not really tampered with the accepted law, but rather he subscribed to an opposing position that just happened to require fewer doves.

Rashi was probably responding to such an interpretation when he insisted that the Patriarch deliberately adopted a lenient position on a Torah law in the belief that this was warranted according to the principle “It is time to act for the Lord for they have made void thy law,” a rule that was invoked elsewhere in order to justify overriding specific laws for the sake of urgent communal priorities. According to Rashi, Rabban Simeon was worried that the high price of doves would cause people to forgo the ritual altogether, leading them to violate graver Torah prohibitions.

A very similar attitude is discernible in connection with another ruling in the Talmud that was designed to lower the price of a ritual object. The Mishnah stated that it is unacceptable to observe the precept of taking myrtle branches (hadas) on the Sukkot festival unless at least one of the branches is intact without its tip being cut off. However, the Babylonian sage Samuel ruled in accordance with the dissenting position of Rabbi Tarfon who permitted clipped myrtle branches.

This ruling ostensibly runs counter to the accepted norms of talmudic decision-making, which usually give preference to the anonymous opinions recorded in the Mishnah. The Talmud linked Samuel’s ruling to an incident involving consumer protection. Apparently the myrtle sellers in his community were overcharging their customers, and it was in order to counteract this development that Samuel confronted them with an ultimatum: either they lower their prices or he would announce publicly that the halakhah follows the lenient view of Rabbi Tarfon, so that kosher hadasim would become much easier to procure, severely reducing the merchants' profit margins.

In the seventeenth century, Jewish communities in Moravia declared a two-month boycott of fish because the local suppliers had been exploiting the Jewish attachment to Sabbath fish as a pretext for charging exorbitant prices. Rabbi Menahem Mendel Krochmal was asked whether there were religious grounds for supporting the boycott in light of talmudic assurances that Jews would be divinely compensated, even rewarded, for their Sabbath expenditures. In his responsum, Rabbi Krochmal enthusiastically encouraged the sanctions basing himself on the Mishnah about Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel and the doves, as well as Rashi’s commentary thereto. If, in order to combat outrageous prices, the sages of old were prepared to adopt a lenient position regarding a precept from the Torah, it was clear that Jews could temporarily forfeit some fish for the benefit of the consumers

Though most authorities were in favour of combating inflation, they did not always agree on the best means for achieving that goal. The Talmud reports that the father of the sage Samuel would try to sell his produce as early as possible in the season when the market price was at its lowest. His son tried to go him one better by stockpiling the low-priced produce until later, and making it available cheaply after the prices had generally risen, hoping thereby to help drive them down. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but the scholars of the land of Israel observed that the father’s policy was preferable to the son’s. They reasoned that the impact of the price-lowering is more likely to be felt early in the season before matters have had a chance to stabilize, than later on after the higher prices have already taken effect.

To be sure, there are items for which we should be willing to pay a premium price. The wise Solomon mentioned some examples in his book of Proverbs. Thus, for the sake of acquiring understanding one should be prepared to give all one's possessions. And of course, a woman of valour fetches a price above rubies!

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Chronicles and Commentaries
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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, February 10, 2012, p. 14.
  • For further reading:
    • Elon, Menachem. Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994.
    • Friedman, Hershey H. “Ancient Marketing Practices: The View from Talmudic Times.” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 3 (1984): 194-204.
    • Sanders, E. P. Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE. London and Philadelphia: SCM Press and Trinity Press International, 1992.
    • Warhaftig, Itamar. “Consumer Protection: Price and Wage Levels.” Crossroads: Halacha and the Modern World 1 (1987): 49-77.