Can't rabbis act to lower Pesach prices?

March 26, 2009

Question: Pesach is expensive enough as it is, but in these economically difficult times, many families will be finding it harder to pay their bills. Do products like coffee really need a kosher-for-Pesach label and can’t rabbis do something to make the festival more affordable?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

The prohibition against eating chametz on Pesach is extremely severe. According to Jewish law, food containing even the most miniscule amount of chametz may not be consumed during the festival. Therefore while non-processed foods such as fruit and vegetables are intrinsically kosher for Pesach, foods processed in large factories require certification.

I do, however, share your concern about the prohibitive prices for kosher-for-Pesach products. It appears to me, as I am sure it does to many, that the kosher consumer is taken advantage of this time a year. While we all appreciate that kosher supervision has its associated costs, it seems the consumer often pays above and beyond what is reasonable to cover those costs.

This problem is not a new one. For generations rabbis and communal leaders wrestled with price-gouging at Pesach time. In the past, the rabbinate carried more authority and so they were at times able to force prices down. Most rabbis today have no real power to interfere with price setting. They do, however, have moral influence, and when it is evident that greed is pushing prices beyond the affordability of most people, they must speak out forcefully and publicly.

One way of effectively countering prohibitive retail prices is for a number of families to band together in order to purchase their Pesach staples wholesale. This is something many of the families did when I was growing up and while it didn’t prevent the retailers inflating their prices, it ensured that the families involved were not taken advantage of.

At the same time consumers could be a little more discerning in their pre-festival shopping. While one cannot compromise on the main staples, I think it is unnecessary to buy kosher-for-Pesach cakes and pastries at exorbitant prices. The consumer unwittingly plays a role in driving up prices by buying into the notion that it is impossible to go for a week without poorly simulated cake, cereal and even pasta.

Ironically, Pesach is a time to wean oneself off such products and that is precisely what our grandparents did. We are, in many ways victims, of our consumer culture where for a price anything is possible. Sometimes, as in the case of Passover products, that price can be too high. We would all be much better off if we were able to recognise this and walk away, leaving the unnecessary and overpriced item on the shelf.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

There is no doubt that being Jewish can be expensive. Think of the regular donations we are expected to give to charity, or synagogue subscriptions, or the price of tefillin, brit milah and having two sets of crockery and cutlery. Judaism does not come on the cheap.

Still, there have also been countless generations of Jews who have lived in impoverished circumstances, yet managed to lead very pious and observant lives. A key factor is attitude. For some, giving to charity is as much a necessity as paying the mortgage; they budget for both and see Jewish expenses as part of their normal outgoings, not an “extra”.

For others, it is so easy to fall prey to the law of inverse wealth mentality. The more we are able to do - have holidays abroad, regularly upgrade the car - the less we feel we can afford to spend on anything that might jeopardise those pleasures. We become rich in assets but mean in spirit.

But if religious commitment does affect the way we choose to spend our money, it is also true that it should not involve ridiculous outlay. We laugh at the cost of “Kabbalah water”, but should be equally concerned that we do not impose our own variations of it.

This does indeed apply to Pesach. Clearly, there are special foods that we buy specifically for the festival - from matzah to cinnamon balls - and other foods that we buy regularly every week but which require special kosher-for-Pesach labels as they can sometimes contain leaven products, such as chocolates.

But what about products that are intrinsically free of any chametz, such as tea or sugar? Why should we increase the price by employing a shomer and paying for the back-up bureaucracy to tell us the obvious ?

In the days before packaging and labelling, our ancestors seemed to manage without such requirements. Moreover, strict civil legislation about food production means that the hypothetical situation of a worker accidentally dropping his sandwich lunch into the sugar vat is so extraordinarily unlikely as to be farcical.

For this reason, Progressive rabbis urge that we take Pesach seriously - both its observances and its themes - but do not insist on unnecessary labels for such foods; otherwise we cause the double problem of higher prices and bringing the law into disrepute. It is hard to know which is the more costly.

Last updated: 1:05pm, March 26 2009