Thursday, September 22, 2011

The real cost of mehadrin standards

In the Charedi world today, Mehadrin is the buzzword. Everything is mehadrin whether it is food, tefillin or buses.

At first glance this is a good thing. Why shouldn't people want to do the best that they can for Hashem? Why shouldn't we have the highest standards for food, tefillin etc.?

The answer is that there is no free lunch and mehadrin standards cost money, a lot of money.

A few days ago I posted (Entitled to tzedaka?) about R' Shlomo needing/accepting tzedaka to buy his son's tefillin. R' Shlomo didn't have money to buy tefillin and yet with the tzedaka money he bought the best mehadrin tefillin. The difference between the best mehadrin tefillin and non-mehadrin tefillin can be over 2000 shekel. Does it really make sense for someone who doesn't have the money to buy tefillin to use tzedaka money to buy mehadrin tefillin? Clearly R' Shlomo is poor. Wouldn't that 2000 shekel be better served using for more essential needs like food?

The same goes for food. Mehadrin chicken and meat is significantly more expensive. Does it make sense for people to go hungry or not eat chicken at all because they are buying mehadrin chickens?

I recently was solicited to donate money to build a mehadrin mikva. In Israel, mikvaos are built by the government. However, again, what the government builds is not mehadrin enough and therefore they are trying to raise millions of dollars to build a mehadrin mikva. Is this really the best use of millions of dollars of tzedaka money when people have no food, shelter etc.?

The fact is that I would guess that many people who eat only mehadrin, buy mehadrin tefillin etc. do so because of social norms and not because of any real religious reason. The average person has no idea what is the difference between a mehadrin chicken and a non-mehadrin chicken and is only buying mehadrin because that is what is socially acceptable. They are doing it by rote not any deep seated religious feeling. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the modern era is that it is very easy to find chumros. You can do a Bar Ilan search and find all kinds of chumros on every issue and the various hashgachos are competing on how many chumros they can follow.

The Gemara and Shulchan Aruch have a concept of יוהרא (see for example בבא קמא נט ב) that a person should not do things that make him look like he is super frum. For example the shulchan Aruch says that the average person shouldn't put on R' Tam tefillin because of יוהרא. Unfortunately this idea is gone today. No one cares about יוהרא, rather everyone wants to out frum the other person.

Imagine you take your 5 year child on a test drive of 2 cars, a Toyota Corolla and a Lexus. The child will not appreciate the leather seats, the superb handling, the quiet ride, etc. of the Lexus. From his perspective the 2 cars are basically the same. In many ways the same applies to most people regarding mehadrin, they don't appreciate the difference because they have no idea what the difference is and why A is better then B.

In a number of places the Mishna Berura writes בעל נפש יחמיר על כעצמו. Today everyone is מחמיר on these. However, that is not what the Mishna Berura wrote. He wrote that these chumras are for certain people, a בעל נפש, the fact that the average person considers himself a בעל נפש is the height of arrogance.

The bottom line is that mehadrin standards for everything cost a fortune of money that the Charedi world doesn't have today. Sometimes it is יצא שכרו בהפסדו. If eating only mehadrin chickens means that you can't afford chicken for Shabbos and therefore your oneg shabbos suffers, that is a steep price to pay. If buying mehadrin tefillin means you need to go into debt and can't buy food we need to ask whether it is worth it.

There needs to be a return to some kind of balance. Someone who follows the עיקר הדין should not be looked down upon like a second class citizen. On one hand, no one wants to eat non-kosher food, on the other hand we don't need to be חושש for every דעת יחיד.


Mikeage said...

In general, I agree with you completely about this, but I'd add two notes.

First, those who only buy mehadrin probably consider the comparison to be between, say, a Volvo station wagon and a Ford Pinto; it's not about luxury, but "safety". The other one's ok, but it's rather risky.

Second, who said we need to have meat every day? I would agree that a family that can't afford a mehadrin chicken for shabbos should consider "hatorah chasah al mamonam shel yisrael". But who says we need to have fleishigs every day? Up to that point, perhaps we should be cutting back out luxuries if we can enhance our kiyum hamitzvos (for the cases where "mehadrin" includes some form of hiddur, of course).

bluke said...


I agree with you that we don't need to to eat meat/chicken every day. However, I get at least 1 tzedaka pamphlet in my mailbox every day describing people who can't put food on the table.

From what I read understand, the Charedi world is very poor and has a lot of trouble making ends meet. Mehadrin standards makes it a lot harder.

Mikeage said...

True, and I'm not arguing that point. [how those people let themselves get to such a point is a different matter; one that you've covered very effectively in the past]

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

First, it's great that you're back on a regular basis.

Now, there are two factors at play here:
1) Money. Yes, there's isn't a lot to go around but those that have, have a lot and they aren't shy about spending it on "mitzvos". This helps create a more expensive standard. If no one was buying mehadrin meat, the price would come down but there's enough people who want to buy "the best" and they support the industry.
2) Doesn't it strike anyone as odd that the same money and effort is not invested into bein adam l'chavero as it is into bein adam l'makom?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Mehadrin is a double-edged sword. It's more expensive for the consumer - but it's also an employment industry for many, many people in the community, whether it's certifying products or selling expensive esrogim.

Chana said...

And "mehadrin" isn't necessarily better. My daughter worked for a small dairy run entirely by yirei shamayim, and she was impressed by the thoroughness of the rabbanut masgichim. They really checked everything out and asked questions every time. The other mashgichim, not so much. They basically wanted their money, and they's sign.

The staff at the dairy referred to the latter as "Chatam Sofer", a pun meaning "sign the form and count the money".

Rafi G. said...

an email just sent to my local neighborhood email list said:
There's a single mom with 7 children here in Bet Shemesh who
has no chicken for the chagim. If you have some meat or poultry that you can donate, it will be a wonderful mitzvah to make Hashem happy on Rosh Hashana. (Eida, Landau, She'eiris, Rav Rubin)..."

notice she has no chicken to put on her table to feed her 7 kids over yom tov, but she insists on eating only the most expensive hechsherim.

bluke said...

What really bothers me is that I would bet that she (not to pick on this woman, it probably applies to most people) has no real idea why she only eats these hashgochas and not other hashgochas.

The OU recently introduced a line of mehadrin chicken, Fleish, that is significantly cheaper then the hechsherim mentioned above. To the best of my knowledge it hasn't really been accepted by people like the women listed above. Can anyone really say that those hechsherim are better or worse then the OU hashgacha? Does anyone really know? In fact, does anyone even know what the standards are for R' Rubin. R' Landau, Shearis etc.? My understanding is that these are not public knowledge. It would be very helpful to consumers if every hashgacha would list what chumros it keeps, what kulos it relies on, etc. so that people could make decisions based on some real information. Unfortunately today this is not the case.