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Beit Midrash Family and Society Rain in Israel

Chapter 14

Profiting from Basic Necessities

Wherever labor and effort are involved, demanding payment is justified. The sages sought to prevent effortless retailing. However, when marketing grew and store owners developed sales expenses, Jewish law recognized their right to receive payment.
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We have discussed the rabbinic enactment prohibiting the hoarding of fruits in order to sell them high when the prices rise. We will now address a related enactment: one that prohibits profiting from fruits or other basic necessities in the Land of Israel.
Rain in Israel (17)
Rabbi Uzi Kalchaim zt"l
13 - A Blessing in the Marketplace
14 - Profiting from Basic Necessities
15 - Heavenly Bounty, Earthly Justice
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It is difficult to understand why the sages would want to forbid a person from acting as an agent between farmer and consumer. After all, marketplace commerce revolves entirely around the selling of fruits and vegetables.

The Talmud teaches, "It is forbidden to profit in the Land of Israel from basic necessities, for example, wines, oils, and sifted flours" (Baba Batra 91a). The reference here is to buying wine and oil and fine flour from the owner in order to sell them in the market. The reason for this is "so that basic necessities will be available for sale at as low a price as possible" (Rambam, Hilkhot Mekhira 14:4).

If this be the case, how will marketplace commerce be conducted at all? "One person brings of his produce and sells, and another brings of his produce and sells." In this manner, through bartering, the prices will not be driven up. What is the purpose of this prohibition? "So that the owner himself will sell to the consumer as he would sell to the shopkeeper" (Rambam). In this manner, merchandise can be sold directly, without numerous intermediaries and at a low price.

Rashbam assumes that this does not involve much effort, "for the owner is able to find buyers without much trouble." According to him, it is possible to sell merchandise without a middleman, and the goods will also be less expensive if there is direct contact between the farmer and the consumer. This is why the sages forbade the middleman "from profiting from necessities" - in order that the blessing of the land be made available to all inexpensively.

However, it is permissible for a middleman to sell spices, cumin, pepper, etc., for such commodities are not basic necessities.

If a person invests effort in a particular harvest, it is permissible to sell as a middleman. For example, "it is permissible to buy wheat in order to make bread [and sell it], because this involves effort" (Rashbam). The same is true if one only grinds the wheat to make flour.

We have learned an import lesson here: Wherever labor and effort are involved, demanding payment is justified. What the sages sought to prevent was effortless retailing. However, when retail marketing grew and store owners developed sales expenses, Jewish law recognized their right to receive payment for their investments.

Even here, though, the rabbis forbade middlemen from selling goods for more than a sixth of their price: "Regarding the shopkeeper who sells small amounts, they estimate the store expenses and the wages for his work, and beyond this he is permitted to earn a sixth" (Arukh Hashulchan, Choshen Mishpat 231:20).

Therefore, if a person buys wheat and makes bread from it, obviously the consumer must pay for this investment, and this cannot be considered profiting from basic necessities. The seller exerts himself and may therefore request payment for his efforts.

This cannot be compared the sort of mere retailing that involves no activity at all. The law against profiting from basic necessities was aimed at minimizing such effortless retailing, which does nothing but raise prices and make the attainment of goods more burdensome.

Profiting through the sale of basic necessities was forbidden because such goods were meant to benefit humans equally. They have been given to all of us by He who "nourishes and supports all, and benefits all, and provides food for all of his creatures" (Grace after Meals). However, it is permitted to profit from nonessential commodities, and whoever is interested in such luxuries must be prepared to pay the price.

Rambam does a good job of depicting the world according to the theory that there is a direct relation between life's necessities, their price, and their availability (Guide to the Perplexed 3:12):

"You ought to consider our state of being and take note of the fact that the more vital a substance is to living creatures, the more common and inexpensive it is; and the less vital it is, the less common and more expensive it is."

Oxygen, which is extremely vital, exists everywhere and is totally free; water is more available than food, and one can find it in any populated area for less than the cost of food; fruits and vegetables are less expensive than sweets, etc. The more one moves towards luxuries, the more expensive and rarer things become.

This idea can be conveyed in the form of a pyramid. It's base is occupied with essential substances; the less vital the substance, the rarer and more expensive it is, and the higher it is on the pyramid.

Now we can better understand the rabbinic enactment to protect the blessing, so that it remain at the base of the pyramid, accessible to all.
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