The Shulchan Aruch rules that it is forbidden for merchants to hoard produce in times of famine, as well as to move produce from one area to another. The Shulchan Aruch states that such speculators are considered like usurors (SA CM 231:23-26). This law is of particular interest because it opposes conventional economic wisdom which stresses the importance of speculation in minimizing the impact of famine by ensuring that reserves are not consumed so early that famine becomes truly dangerous. This is parallel to the law forbidding usury, as opposed to economic convention which views interest as essential to the appropriate allocation of capital.
The gemara bases this prohibition in the following passage from the prophet Amos (8:4-6): “Hear this, you who would swallow the needy and destroy the downtrodden of the land; who say, When will the month pass so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbatical year so that we may open our granaries?… So that we may buy the poor for money and the needy for a pair of shoes.” (Bava Batra 90b)
We see that the basis of this prohibition 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 speculators, instead of sharing the general interest in relief, now have a private interest in continued distress, which will enrich them. They ask, “When will the month pass?” Rashi on Bava Batra explains that they can’t wait for the harvest season to pass, when there will be a shortage of grain in the market and prices will rise.
Furthermore, these individuals are enticed to go beyond their desire for monetary enrichment, which is in itself reasonable, and to seek dominance over others: “So that we may buy the poor for money”. This is a tendency which the Torah repeatedly condemns since we are all servants of G-d. “For the children of Israel are slaves to Me”; and our Sages infer, and not slaves to other human beings (Kiddushin 22b).
This understanding is exactly parallel to the approach we presented to the laws of interest, where based on Rav Kook and Rav Natan of Breslav we explained that the problem with interest is that the legitimate economic relationship of creditor and debtor is almost inevitably accompanied by an inappropriate human relationship of social domination, as it is written: “The rich man rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender” (Mishlei 22:7. See column from TT390, Vayera 5760).
This law also embodies an additional principle of the Torah’s approach to economic life: the idea of G-d’s providence. Unlike conventional economics which defines itself as the science of scarcity, our tradition looks at economic life as the “Torah of plenty”. HaShem repeatedly promises us that if we do His will, then He will bless our economic endeavors with success and blessing. Therefore, appropriate prudence in saving for times of scarcity is justified, since this is part of our general mandate to exercise due prudence and foresight in all economic endeavors, and not to rely solely on miracles. For this reason the Shulchan Aruch states that producers are indeed permitted to warehouse produce. But excessive speculation display a deeply rooted conviction that scarcity will continue; this contravenes our basic faith in G-d’s providence.
The Tur, based on the Tosefta (Avoda Zara 5:1) states that this prohibition applies specifically in Eretz Yisrael. This fits in with the approach which views this law as a principle of providence, since Eretz Yisrael is the source of providence for the entire world, as Rashi states, “By virtue of the supervision by which He looks over [Eretz Yisrael] He looks over the other lands.” (Devarim11:12). Other author- ities add that the rule applies in all Jewish communities, which fits in with the human explanation. This prohibition, like that of interest, doesn’t apply in dealings among non-Jews, since at these period of history relations of dominance are an inevitable feature of these dealings.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.