Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Defining Hiddur Mitzvah

I've mentioned before that I like to shop locally. For one thing, it's a savings in time not to be running around all over the city looking for something that is available in my backyard for less expenditure of time, and yes, sometimes of money as well. For many years I was the one to buy our lulav and esrog for Sukkot, and I bought at the local seforim store. Because I was the one to buy these things I was also the one who noticed that the price was going up and up from one year to the next. Granted, everything seems to have gone up in price, so it wasn't a surprise that a lulav and esrog should also be getting more expensive.

But the lulav/esrog buying expedition was further complicated by the idea of hiddur mitzvah. There were the "ordinary" lulav/esrog sets and then there were the "extraordinary" ones, the ones for hiddur mitzvah. And then there was the price differential between ordinary and extraordinary. I will admit that on my last buying expedition I was truly getting fed up with what those extraordinary esrogim cost. The store clerk had placed a number of esrogim out on the counter in front of me, with a price differential of well over $100. So, I decided to test out something. When the clerk turned to serve another customer, I switched around a few esrogim out of their original boxes. When he came back to me I asked him to explain in detail why one esrog should cost so much more than another. He picked up what should have been the more expensive esrog and began to wax lyrical about its "hechsher," about its physical beauty and perfection, and then pointed to what he thought were the less perfect esrogim and showed me how they had a tiny flaw that made them less expensive, less "beautiful." Yes, I let him talk and then pointed out that I had switched the esrogim and even he, supposedly a maven, didn't know which was which. And yes, I put back the esrogim in their original boxes.

The upshot, however, is that I decided that I was going to expand my shopping area for lulav/esrog sets. I reasoned that Brooklyn would be a better place to shop for them. I reasoned that with more people in Brooklyn, and more seforim stores and more trailers set up selling the sets, the prices would be better. Yes and no. I walked into the largest of the seforim stores in Flatbush and asked to see the lulav/esrog sets. And again hiddur mitzvah raised its head. The ordinary sets were a bit cheaper than those being sold in my neighborhood, but those "extraordinary" sets were with prices off the wall. I also looked at some of those sets being sold on the busy street corners. Yes, some sets were way less than those in the stores, but I'd never seen a lulav only two feet long before. And I've seen grapes bigger than some of those esrogim.

I came home and told my husband about what a lulav and esrog would cost us, on average, and his mouth fell open. He happened to speak to his best friend about this and the best friend laughed. He told us to leave the lulav/esrog buying to him. Starting last year that's what we did, and oh what a surprise we were in for. He buys not only for himself but also for his sons in law and for his neighbors and then there was for us.

He bought for us again this year. We purchased two sets, one for my husband and one for my son. The esrogim are absolutely beautiful both in shape and in skin condition. They carry an Israeli hechsher. The lulavim are full, tall and supple. And each set cost $11, purchased in Boro Park on the Thursday before yom tov. Yes, you read that correctly--$11. No one, looking at these sets, would be able in any way to find a flaw; in fact, the opposite is true--there are those who kidded my husband that he finally spent the money to get a real hiddur mitzvah set.

The talk in the neighborhood was that the "better" sets were going for $120 and way upwards. One person mentioned a set that his son in law had purchased for $275. A nephew in Israel called his mom to discuss which set he should buy--the one for $100 or the "better" set for $130. And one person mentioned a "top of the line" set that ran over $500.

In a time period where people are desperately looking for ways to cut down on expenditures, where they are searching for ways to pay the bills, where money is in short supply, what real justification is there for spending the kind of money being asked for hiddur mitzvah lulav/esrog sets? Especially when the same beauty can be purchased a bit later for pennies on the dollar? Especially when most people couldn't tell the difference if you switched the esrogim? Yes, a really poor esrog may be obvious. But when you get to those being sold as good and as extraordinary very few, if any, people can tell the difference physically; the difference is all in the price being paid.

Frum Jews have gotten a reputation--not all that deserved--for being smart about money, about getting more for less. Not, apparently, when it comes to buying lulav/esrog sets. There it seems to be the operative statement that "a fool and his money are soon parted." I understand in theory the idea of hiddur mitzvah, and yes, there are some esrogim and lulavim that look more beautiful than others. But at what cost and at what price?


Kayla said...

$11?!!!!! I saw some sets for $25 but that price is unbelievable. How does he get them so low?

Anonymous said...

If you are ready to spend $100, an option for a real hiddur mitzvah (actually at least 2 of them) would be to buy the arba minim for $20 and donate the other $80 to tzedaka!


JS said...

Retailers figured out a long time ago that you can slap the label "hidur mitzvah" on something and jack up the price to your heart's content.

There is absolutely no discernible difference in the arba minim sets. It's completely subjective. You're still performing a mitzvah regardless of what set you're using. It's almost like one saying it's a hidur mitzvah to only give tzedaka with brand new, crisp bills as opposed to old, crumpled bills.

No one will admit it, but arba minim sets nowadays are nothing more than guys bragging "My lulav is bigger than your lulav." It's a real embarrassment how much money is wasted on this shtus instead of people giving to tzedaka or paying down their own bills (or, heck, accepting less tuition assistance).

Fact is, people went for years with sharing the few arba minim sets that could be had in the town - just HAVING a set was a hidur. Now, even the cheapest, "ugliest" set is better than anything available just a few short decades ago.

Tamar said...

We spent the first few years we were married way out of town in the heartland. We were a very small kehila. We had placed an order for lulavim and etrogim from NY and the order came in wrong, with less than 1/3 of the lulavim arriving. We all pooled the lulavim and arranged schedules so that everyone could bentsch lulav and esrog. Know what? It worked out just fine. JS is right that it didn't used to be the custom that everyone had their own lulav and esrog. Sometimes a shul would buy a few and all the members would come to use them. Why are we so quick to spend megabucks today?

harry-er than them all said...

The hechsherim on esrogim very often come from different orchards which have different yichus. by yichus it means that the esrog tree in question had never been grafted. there are in fact not many orchards which can claim this and the price reflects it.

If a person does not feel the need to purchase from a tree which hasn't been grafted for many generations of this tree's ancestors, one can find many esrogim at reasonable prices if one is an astute buyer.

If you pick up an esrog and it says 'Aleph' on it, and its not, go onto the next one, or alert the seller. I have seen many sellers change the rating based on a customers complaint. Obviously there may be dishonest ones or price gougers, but there are honest jews in the world

Shimon said...

It's not so much a question of honesty Harry-er as it is of price gouging. Two different sellers of esrogim with the same hechsher can be selling those esrogim for hundreds of dollars difference in price.

It bothers me that the price gouging comes attached to something that is a mitzvah. If you want to hike up the price of a suit or a pair of shoes I can choose to buy or not to buy. I have no Jewish attachment to the items. But to put the price tag on a lulav and esrog in the multi-hundred range, when you know that some people are going to take the idea of hiddur mitzvah very seriously is dead wrong.

nmf #7 said...

I found that here in Israel- you can get such a deal from the shuk, but if you want to be picky- for example, picking out your hadassim individually by opening packages, or getting the 'Deri' lulavim, sometimes more money has to be spent. Sometimes there is truly a worthwhile value to what they charge. (I'm not saying extravagant charges though.)