Supporting local businesses during corona: Part 1

Dear Friends,

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

For the past nine months we have been living in very precarious times on multiple levels. In this article we would like to discuss a key issue 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, 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 and community organizations 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 to real estate agents and consultants of all types, handymen and construction contractors, and the list goes on… 

With regard 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 nonkosher catering; rather, people are rarely holding events that require catering. 

With regard to restaurants, many are preferring, due to the pandemic, not to eat out at all, putting these providers on the brink of collapse (although curbside pickup and delivery options are available).

This situation raises a number of halachic and ethical questions: 

• What is our obligation with regard 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 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 leave them 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 eight 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 that 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 move 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 particular 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 than let the business fail 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.)

We will continue the discussion in next week’s column.

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