Sukkot is a holiday beloved for its sense of openness and beauty, to be able to sit within and yet feel a part of all outdoors, seeing the moon through the roof, feeling the weather through the walls.
And yet, Sukkot has somehow developed into a holiday whose economics are the least transparent of any holy day of the year.
On Passover, the Better Business Bureau monitors the pricing of items in the Passover grocery basket, to prevent seasonal rip-offs. No one — not consumer protection agencies, rabbis, customers or journalists — would meekly accept that a pound of matzah would suddenly cost $36, or $72, for no logical or obvious economic reason.
What if the only box of Shabbat candles or Chanukah candles available in most neighborhoods cost $54, creating obvious hardship for more than a few? Would we be consoled by being told by our rabbis that this wasn’t price-gouging but simply a fundraiser for the local shul? If this is a fundraiser, couldn’t the top prices be higher so we could better subsidize and modify the cost on the low-end?
Of course, most fundraising is optional. A poor person can give according to his or her ability, but not to the extent of feeling extorted. Some lulav/etrog dealers, subject to supply and demand, try to keep prices down, but others seem to operate more as cartels than as members of the community, with synagogues being their enablers.
How are prices justified? It is traditional to fulfill hiddur mitzvah in purchasing the fragrant etrog, to buy the most beautiful available. But are the workers in the etrog fields paid more, are the middlemen paid more, for a supposedly $100 etrog as opposed to a $30 one?
We’re told that prices must go up this year because of a shortage of palm fronds from Egypt. Then, there’s a story out of Israel that the Agriculture Ministry says there is no shortage there, even given the situation with Egypt, even with a boycott of palms from Gaza.
Try to get an explanation for any of this from the people in your sukkah or synagogue or community and you’ll likely get not an answer but a shrug, something out of film noir, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
The Arba Minim — the four species of palms, willows, myrtle and etrog — are supposed to symbolize the unity of the Jewish people. For the sake of their necessary beauty, for the sake of our unity as a community, communal leaders should review the sale of items essential for Sukkot with an eye toward greater compassion and transparency regarding potential economic hardship and basic fair pricing. In that way, we could all celebrate the holiday as Am Echad, One People.
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