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Beit Midrash Family and Society Rain in Israel

Chapter 13

A Blessing in the Marketplace

All blessings necessitate protection. Therefore, our sages took steps to protect produce. One of these is the prohibition against "agirat perot." That is, it is forbidden to buy fruits when they are cheap in order to sell them when the prices rise.
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All blessings necessitate protection. Therefore, the Priestly Blessing reads, "May God bless you and protect you" (Numbers 6:24). Without protection the blessing will not materialize.
Rain in Israel (17)
Rabbi Uzi Kalchaim zt"l
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In this vein, a rich person must be on guard against thieves and burglars, or against risky business ventures that could deplete him of his wealth and leave him with nothing. Even a great, popular leader must beware of competitors and opponents eager to replace him, or adversaries who scheme to assassinate him.

The same is true of physical beauty. A beautiful or handsome person must be on guard against pride and haughtiness, or moral corruption. This applies to all human gifts. One must protect them so that they not come to resemble "riches kept by the owner to his detriment" (Ecclesiastes 5:12).

In order, then, for the blessing of the soil to be complete, for it to exist, it needs to be accompanied by protective measures. Therefore, our sages laid down a number of rules aimed at protecting and caring for the land's produce in matters upon which human life hinges. One of these enactments is the prohibition against "agirat perot," hoarding fruits. That is, it is forbidden to buy fruits when they are cheap in order to sell them when the prices rise.

In our present-day reality, because commerce is open and free, this ordinance might seem puzzling. In fact, it seems unjust, because it interferes with and impairs the principle of free commerce. Therefore, an explanation of our sages' intention is called for.

Our sages sought to protect the blessing, to assure that it be divided among all people in as equal a manner as possible, to prevent a rise in prices that would allow only a few to enjoy the blessing. Therefore, there is no prohibition against saving the produce of one's field for one's own family. The essence of the prohibition is to prevent people from cornering the fruit market and selling later at a higher price.

Our sages took this matter very seriously, equating it with Taking interest on loans, an act explicitly prohibited by the Torah (Baba Batra 90b):

"Our Rabbis taught: Concerning those who hoard fruit [to sell later when prices have risen], lend money on usury, reduce the measures and raise prices, Scripture says: 'When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may set forth corn? Making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances of deceit.' (Amos 8:5) And [concerning these] it is [further] written in Scripture, The Lord hath sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their works' (ibid. 7)."

And in other verses in the same passage Amos prophesies against those who "swallow the needy and destroy the poor of the land" (ibid. 4), who want to "buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes, and sell the refuse of the corn" (ibid. 6).

The sages, then, forbade buying fruits at a low price and selling high because they considered this harmful to the lower classes. However, it is permitted to buy up fruits while prices are low and sell them at a low price when the prices rise. This, though, is not considered virtuous behavior. It is better to sell them at a low price when the prices are low so that the market prices remain low; this will prevent a steep rise in prices later.

The Talmud provides us with some background concerning a man by the name of "Shabbtai Otzer Haperot" (Shabtai the Fruit Hoarder) who earned most of his income and profit in the manner discussed above (Baba Batra 90b). Once, the sages relate, his mother smelled some food cooking on Yom Kippur and found it hard to resist. They whispered in her ear "It's Yom Kippur today," but this did not calm her; she was pregnant, and the fetus demanded to be fed. They called to the baby, "---The wicked are estranged from the womb" (Psalms 58:4), and out came "Shabbtai Otzer Haperot." Even in his prenatal stage, then, the power of his passions was discernable.

Our sages' concern about causing a rise in the market prices is discernable also in the days they chose for fasting over national hardships: "We do not begin instituting public fasts on Thursdays in order not to cause a rise in the market prices" (Taanit 10a and 15b).

Were they to call for a fast on Thursday, those fasting would have to buy food for at least two large meals, one to break the fast and one for the Sabbath. This would create an atmosphere of hoarding. Merchants would get the impression that a famine was approaching, and they would begin raising their prices (based on Rashi ad loc.).

This concern exists particularly when fasting for rain, for at such times the market prices rise even more. When merchants see people fasting for rain they say, "There must be a great need for water; were this not the case, the sages would not have decreed a fast just before the Sabbath" (Rambam, Mishnah Commentary, Taanit 2:9).

Therefore, the sages decided that the order of fast days would be Monday-Thursday-Monday, not Thursday-Monday-Thursday, in order to prevent a rise in the market prices. It should be noted, however, that later Torah authorities permit Thursday fasts, explaining that the phenomenon of hoarding fruits is not common in our day.
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