In the summer of 5771/2011, a Facebook campaign was waged in Israel to organize a boycott of cottage cheese due to a widely-perceived sense of its prices being too high. More than one hundred thousand signatures were appended to the online petition, and a very significant reduction in the purchase of cottage cheese ensued. After two weeks of the campaign, the companies which market this product significantly reduced the price of cottage cheese.
In the current issue of Techumin, the leading Religious Zionist Halachic publication (Volume 32), Rav Yehudah Zoldan, who frequently presents Halachic perspectives on matters of social concern, examines the Halachic propriety of this boycott. He begins by noting that such a boycott has widespread ramifications beyond which the organizers had probably imagined. Instead of merely impacting the wealthy top executives of the leading dairy companies, the boycott negatively impacts a wide net of people, including the employees of the dairy companies, the employees of the companies which manufacture the ingredients added to the cheese, and the distributors of the cottage cheese.
Every individual most certainly enjoys the right to choose to refrain from purchasing a product due to its perceived high price, since one has no Halachic obligation to purchase a particular product from a specific company. However, it is a far different issue when one organizes a widespread boycott of a product, due to the enormous impact of such action. In such a situation one must be certain that his information is accurate, and professional assessment of the justice of a proposed boycott is required.
This is similar to the very limited situations where Halachah permits speaking Leshon HaRa. One of the core requirements to permit Leshon HaRa, writes the Chafeitz Chayim (Hilchot Isurei Rechilut 9 and Hilchot Leshon HaRa 10:2), is that one must be certain that the information is completely true.
Chazal’s Concern for Merchants Inflating Prices
Chazal viewed with the greatest of concern the collusion of merchants to artificially raise prices. The Gemara (Megilah 17b) states that the Berachah for Paranasah (sustenance, the Berachah of “Bareich Aleinu”) was placed as the ninth Beracha in the Amidah as a plea to Hashem against merchants who manipulate the market to raise prices. Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Shevor Zero’a Resha) explains that business people who engage in such practice are considered evil for taking advantage of less financially-fortunate individuals.
Similarly, the Gemara (Bava Batra 90b) states that Hashem swears to punish those who inappropriately raise prices. A divine oath implies that the punishment is non-negotiable and not subject to revocation subsequent to Teshuvah. In addition, the Gemara (Ta’anit 15b) forbids declaring a fast day on a Thursday, as merchants would take advantage and raise prices on Shabbat foods. Finally, Rambam (Hilchot Geneivah 8:20) writes that Beit Din is obligated to appoint administrators in every area to inspect stores. Any merchant who sells at unreasonably high prices is punished and coerced to sell at normal market rates.
Rambam’s statement is of major importance. He clearly rejects those who believe that markets should be left alone, as appropriate prices will emerge naturally without any external intervention. Rambam visibly advocates for active government intervention to ensure proper pricing. There is, though, a limitation, as even Rambam allows the market price to be established “naturally” without government intervention. However, regarding essential items, Rambam (Hilchot Mechirah 14:1-2) requires Beit Din to establish and strictly enforce market prices to ensure that merchants do not markup their merchandise beyond one sixth of their costs.
Chazal Combating Price Gougers
The Mishnah (Keritot 1:7) records that Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel demanded that sellers of birds used for post-childbirth Korbanot (see VaYikra 12:1-8) reduce their prices. He threatened to reduce the number of birds the women were obligated to bring if they did not reduce their prices. The tactic worked, as the merchants immediately reduced prices to their proper levels.
Shmuel used the same tactics to pressure merchants to charge fair prices for Hadasim whose tops were not cut (Sukkah 34b). He threatened to rule in accordance with the lenient view of Rabi Tarfon, who permits using Hadasim whose tops are cut, if the sellers failed to comply with his order. Shmuel used similar tactics regarding selling pots for use after Pesach (Pesachim 30a).
A boycott was similarly used against those who unjustly took advantage of the Jewish community and raised their price for fish for Shabbat use (Teshuvot Tzemach Tzedek 28 and Kaf HaChayim O.C. 242:12). Posekim are willing to forego the tradition of eating fish on Shabbat (Shabbat 118b and Mishnah Berurah 242:1) in order to preserve the economic well-being of the community.
Ensuring a Just Boycott
Such boycotts are not to be taken lightly, considering the potential negative impact on the livelihoods of many individuals. An independent and objective referee is needed to ensure that such a boycott is necessary and unavoidable. This is similar to the Halachah regarding the right of a community to set prices and rates for services and goods, regarding which an “Adam Chashuv,” a highly-respected individual, must approve (Rambam Hilchot Mechirah 14:9-10).
Both Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe C.M. 1:59) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1:87) agree that the “Adam Chashuv” does not necessarily have to be a Torah scholar. The Adam Chashuv, rather, must be someone with impeccable honesty as well as competence to determine appropriate pricing.
Considering the complexity of contemporary economics, this task is beyond the capability of one individual to manage. Thus, Rav Zoldan argues that the Israeli Consumer Protection Agency, a nonprofit, government-funded watchdog organization, serves the function of the Adam Chashuv in contemporary Israel. While the organizers of the cottage cheese boycott did not consult this organization, the organization did voice its approval of the boycott after the protest began.
The editors of Techumin add that Chazal do not always allow for unfettered economic competition and an entirely free market. The Halachah places limitations on when one may enter a business that may negatively impact an existing enterprise (Yoreid LeOmanut Chaveiro, see Gray Matter 1:107-115) and interfering with the completion of a business transaction, Ani HaMehapeich BeChararah (see Gray Matter 4:325-329). Thus, we see that Halachah does not permit a situation where anyone or any organization can call for a boycott of a business product. Accordingly, Halachah requires independent and expert endorsement of a boycott before anyone encourages such behavior.
Is the Leadership Properly Monitoring Prices?
In much of Israel today, there is a sense that prices for basic items have become beyond the reach of the middle class. In the United States as well, some members of the middle class have begun to require charitable assistance to meet basic needs regarding food and health care.
In a situation where those responsible to control prices are failing to do so, vigilante action may be the only appropriate response. While an Adam Chashuv should approve of a boycott, one must wonder why the “Adam Chashuv”s of society have stood by idly without taking proper action. Thus, one cannot criticize the organizers of the cottage cheese boycott for failing to consult with Israel’s Consumer Protection Agency, without also asking why this organization did not advocate appropriate action regarding price controls. When “Adam Chashuv”s fail to do their jobs, individuals are left with no choice other than “Avid Inish Dina LeNafshei,” to take the matter into their own hands.
Even if those who take matters into their own hands do not consult with the governmental organizations regarding the propriety of their actions, they nonetheless must find competent and expert advice as to whether their perception of gross overpricing is indeed accurate. As we mentioned, before speaking Leshon HaRa in situations where it is permissible to do so, one’s top priority must be to ascertain that the information is completely accurate. Otherwise, there is a grave risk that innocent individuals will be greatly harmed.
Consumer boycotts are a very powerful tool that, like any other powerful tool, must be used wisely. Care must be taken to ensure that innocent individuals are not unnecessarily harmed. Very few people possess the expertise to assess the justice of such a boycott. On the other hand, if the experts and leaders are not addressing a critical situation, then consumers are often left with no choice other than to act unilaterally (yet with expert guidance) without the support of the community leadership.