This is a continuation of Rabbi Fried’s column from last week, discussing why and how to support local Jewish businesses and organizations.
The mitzvah: continued
Although a website with 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 Aniim 7:13.)
This mitzvah, vehechezakta bo (“you shall strengthen him”), 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 with any other mitzvah, we are required to fulfill 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, either it 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 from 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 our 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.
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 this 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 to appreciate their customers and not take them for granted, and do their best to 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 and organizations. The TJP has published its Guide to Jewish Life for the last 17 years and the newest edition will be out at the end of this month. The Guide lists all the local Jewish organizations in the area and is distributed free of charge to more than 15,000 households in North Texas as well as available at tjpnews.com. Since March 2020, the TJP has supported its subscribers’ businesses with free online listings, in addition to myriad stories on Jewish businesses and entrepreneurs. Now available on the website Dallas Orthodox Jewish Life (www.dojlife.com) is a list of Jewish businesses. Everyone should peruse that list. Any business not listed there should make sure they contact that site and become represented. If you aren’t a subscriber to the TJP, please consider a subscription. It is vital that we keep our Jewish community institutions vibrant.
It is our hope and prayer that our local vendors, Jewish community organizations and all of us 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!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is the dean of Dallas Area Torah Association. Send your questions to hi at firstname.lastname@example.org.