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March 17, 2020
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COVID-19: Hoarding and Community

March 17, 2020 – by our chaver Rav Barry Kornblau

RCA president Rav Daniel N KorobkinOU KosherVaad Harabonim of Queens, and other well-informed parties report that there are plenty of kosher and kosher-for-Passover supplies — so long as people do not hoard. Nonetheless, hoarding continues to be reported in our community.

Generally speaking, Halachah prohibits hoarding.  Here is Eretz Hemdah‘s summary of the matter:

There are times when a merchant withholds a product until a shortage develops in order to cause a price rise. We have cited above the statement of the Gemara identifying this practice with usury. Rav Achai Gaon (She’iltot Vayigash) adds that there can never be atonement for this sin. The Netziv (Ha’amek She’ela, ad. bc.) explains that they are “robbers of the public” who cannot repent, since they are not able to make compensation to the individuals who suffered as a result of their activities.

The prohibition is quoted in Bava Batra (90b). “One may not hoard foods which are essential to life, such as wines, oils, and flours. Spices… are permitted. This applies to one who buys in the market, but it is permitted to withhold one’s own ‘produce. In Eretz Israel it is permitted to hoard for three years, namely the sixth, seventh, and eighth years of the sabbatical cycle. During a drought, one may not hoard even a kav of carobs, so as not to bring a curse on the prices.”

Several conclusions can be drawn from this braita.

  • The prohibition applies only to essential products. We shall consider below the controversy concerning the scope of this category. In any event, this is the first example of limited intervention in the operation of the economy.
  • According to the version of the braita found in the Tosefta (AZ 5,1), as well as several readings in Bava Batra,3 the prohibition applies only in the Land of Israel. The Rambam (Hilchot Mechira 14,5), however, explains that this is merely an example, and it applies “in the Land of Israel and also wherever there is a Jewish majority, since this phenomenon causes distress to Jews”.
  • Under certain conditions, hoarding is permissible. One is not obligated to sell one’s own produce promptly. Before the sabbatical year one may stock up on supplies. The Rashbam (ad. bc.) explains that this is meant to ensure that there will be foodstocks available during the seventh and eighth years.4 On the other hand, during a drought, no hoarding at all is permitted. The Rashbam explains that this is meant to prohibit even hoarding for household use, which would normally be permitted. The She’iltot (op. cit.) explains that the intention is to prohibit the hoarding of nonessential items in drought years.

In modern economies, droughts with significant food shortages are rare. However, Rav Ezra Basri (Dinei Mamonot, 2, 2, 4) considers wartime to be a comparable case, and accordingly criticizes the panic hoarding that usually takes place when there are apprehensions of war.

The Talmud relates that Shmuel’s father used to sell his produce immediately after the harvest. in order to establish a low market price. Shmuel, on the other hand, used to wait until the price had risen, and then would sell his produce at the original low price, in an attempt to lower the price. The Gemara states that the father’s actions are preferable to those of the son, because any hoarding. even for the best intention. leads to a price rise. Once up. it is much harder to bring it down. According to the Rashbam. Shmuel’s actions are permitted, though not preferred. However. the Netziv (She’iltot, op. cit.) claims that other authorities disagree with the Rashbam and prohibit any hoarding. even if done with good intentions and not for speculative reasons.R. Asher Meir writes: “We see that the basis of this prohibition [of hoarding] is not an economic one. What interested the Sages was not the economic consequences of hoarding but the tragic human consequences: the result is that the solidarity of society is destroyed.”  

The antidote to the every-person-for-him/herself premise of hoarding, then, is communal solidarity.  Therefore, if you or someone you know is running out of a needed supply that cannot be replenished for whatever reason, please let me know.  I will share that information widely in order to find someone who can provide the supply.  Together, we must and will take care of one another!

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