Thursday, February 7, 2013

It's a yeshiva, not a cigar store

[NOTE: This post is not a response to any particular situation, in any institution. I am writing it now only because I translated the piece I cite below for this week's Toronto Torah, as part of a series of articles I have translated regarding the 19th century Machine Matzah controversy.]

I have heard voiced, over the years, an expectation that a Jewish communal institution will hire people who are in need of work, even if they are less qualified or even unqualified; communities never have enough resources to meet all needs, and this is seen as an efficient way to take care of two problems.

The fallout from this practice, though, can be terrible; staff, teachers and administrators all do important work, and if they are inefficient then the institution suffers, and the community suffers. As a most respected mentor of mine once commented regarding a certain school, "It's a yeshiva, not a cigar store." Operating a community institution comes with great responsibility for the welfare of hundreds or thousands of people, and it must be taken seriously, professionally.

That came to mind when I read the following passage from Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Bittul Modaah, pg. 2; you can find the Hebrew here).

Preface: Beginning in ancient times, Jews distributed gifts to the needy at the time of the public reading of Megilat Esther, in order to fulfill the imperative recorded in the megilah and in order to aid the needy in their collection. Also, Jewish communities historically hired needy people to bake matzah, to provide them with respectable economic support. Here, Rabbi Nathanson responded to a rabbi who argued that using machines to bake matzah would damage the livelihood of the needy, and would violate the historic practice of aiding the needy with this employment.

He has noted that we do not read the megilah on Shabbat even when there is an obligation [to read on that date], because the eyes of the needy anticipate the reading of the megilah [and we could not distribute gifts to the needy at a megilah reading on Shabbat]. Similarly, we should halt use of this machine because of the eyes of the needy, for this work provides them with money to purchase wheat [for matzah]. This is one of the precious arguments found in his writings, as well as the writings of others. However, it is empty, easily blown away; it causes us to laugh.

On Purim we read the megilah, and the megilah's central purpose is to remind us to give gifts to the needy, and it would be inappropriate to read the megilah without fulfilling that which is recorded therein. And so they said (Megilah 4) that a community which reads megilah on an earlier day also moves up the gifts to the needy; see Ramban and Rav Zerachyah haLevi there.

Here, though, the essence is to bake matzah in order to fulfill the obligation of matzah. What does this have to do with the needy? If one had many family members [to bake matzah themselves], would he be prohibited from baking personally, without hiring paupers to help?

Further, in our great sins, bitterly poor people come to bake matzah, and those who stand there during the baking can testify to the stumbling blocks that occur in the preparation of matzah. The matzah is prepared by paupers and [non-Jewish] servants, who are frivolous, and every member of my city will testify to this. It has been two years since I was appointed Rabbi and head of the court here, and I enacted that trustworthy people be assigned to each matzah bakery. Despite this practice, we have found many stumbling blocks, including theft of many batches of dough, lying, and baking of their own chametz between sets of matzah. Further, when they work all day and all night their strength is weakened, and there is greater concern for problems. With this machine, though, strong Jews work, and they do their jobs well, and they bake far more in one day than other bakeries do, and their great speed is beyond estimation. 

Chametz between runs? Stolen dough? Supporting our neediest members is a sacred obligation, but it cannot come about this way. And the same is true far beyond matzah baking.

Of course, that doesn't mean we don't help them. It just means we are obligated to find another way.

7 comments:

  1. there are also some jobs where one needs a certain level of competence but no more, why not have "affirmative action" for those in need who meet the competence test?

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  2. There is no free lunch -- protectionism or subsidy must ultimately be paid for by the consumer - either through reduced quality or increased cost. Creating a mandate to hire unqualified staff or inefficient labour instead of efficient automation creates a tax that will likely be primarily paid by the working poor and lower middle class (for most items this tax will be regressive). Creating such a burden on the community should not be done lightly. At the very least this inefficiency premium should count towards Maaser obligations. Of course, it will likely be impossible to calculate each person's true share.

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  3. Can't the make-work jobs be ones where perfect performance is not halachically required?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Can't the make-work jobs be ones where perfect performance is not halachically required?

    I think the answer is contained in the original letter:

    With this machine, though, strong Jews work, and they do their jobs well, and they bake far more in one day than other bakeries do, and their great speed is beyond estimation.

    The community benefits when the best people are hired to do the job. An efficient operation brings the costs down and quality up for everybody.

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  5. R' Yannai,
    Not really always the case. For example, if a machine can only handle 20 pounds of input an hour, it makes no difference whether the tender is capable of feeding it 30 or 60 per hour, as long as they can do 20 the machine will operate at full capacity.
    KT
    Joel Rich

    ReplyDelete
  6. Joel (1) -
    Absolutely!

    Yannai (1) -
    Agreed, although at times the price is worthwhile. All societies do this, on some level.

    Bob -
    Sure, and I believe that should happen, even with a cost to the community.

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  7. as long as they can do 20 the machine will operate at full capacity.
    KT


    But in that case the employee is fully qualified and there is no tzedaka in hiring them (assuming they are getting paid a market rate).

    ...although at times the price is worthwhile. All societies do this, on some level.

    True, but I suspect in many case leaders (Rabbis, politicians, etc) fail to realize there is a real cost or think about who exactly is paying it.

    I think it is more efficient to encourage private individuals and businesses to do such hiring as they are best able to judge their ability to bear the cost and to accurately account for such activity within their tzedaka portfolio. Assuming a competitive industry they will not really be able to pass costs on to consumers.

    ReplyDelete