10 Minutes of Torah -  Jewish Ethics
 October 21, 2005
Week 100, Day 5
18 Tishrei 5766 

A Fair Sukkot: Know before what you eat
By Donald Cohen-Cutler

Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, ...You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:39--43)

Sukkot is a time of remembrance. We are reminded of a time when the Jewish people were dependant upon the cycles of the seasons for sustenance. We are commanded to remember our dependency on the land and environment to provide food for our families. In modernity, most Jews do not till the soil for a living. Yet fruits and vegetables still adorn our tables and our sukkot. This time of year provides a uniquely Jewish way to look at how we get our food from the ground to our table.

As the leaves turn from green to yellow and orange, Jews celebrate the opportunity to start the cycle again for the New Year. After the celebration of Simchat Torah we add an additional prayer for rain to our daily t'filah. Jewish tradition has a deeply rooted understanding of our dependency on these cycles. Many of the laws found in the Torah outline a Jewish way to harvest the land. Jews have three major festivals throughout our year that all center on the different harvest seasons.

However, in an age of a shrinking world and year round produce production, it is completely normal to see a watermelon in New York City in January or an ear of corn in New Mexico in September. Knowing the field from which your food comes seems to be a thing of the ancient past. For the most part, we all shop in supper markets and grocery stores that import a majority of its produce.

Because developing countries can produce cheaper food, the developed world will continue to import it. Yet we can "import" our food in a way that affirms our values and respects those who tend the soil and harvest its crops. We can take this time of Sukkot to remember our rich agricultural history and connection to the land with a commitment to buy Fair Trade products.
Fair Trade is a socially responsible way to buy products. According to TransFair USA, the Fair Trade certifying agency in the United States, Fair Trade is "an innovative, market-based approach to sustainable development. Fair Trade helps family farmers in developing countries to gain direct access to international markets, as well as to develop the business capacity necessary to compete in the global marketplace. By learning how to market their own harvests, Fair Trade farmers are able ... to receive a fair price for their products. This leads to higher family living standards, thriving communities and more sustainable farming practices. Fair Trade empowers farming families to take care of themselves - without developing dependency on foreign aid."
Judaism teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is providing a way for a person to be self-sufficient (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah 10:7-14). By engaging in Fair Trade, individuals are choosing to pay a few extra pennies for their pound of coffee, tea or produce, but are also providing sustaining funds for family farmers throughout the world. We all engage in international trade simply by purchasing our food at the local grocery store and therefore we all can make a difference.

During this harvest festival we should take the time to think about the farmers who are growing our food. These men and women work hard to provide food for dinner tables around the world and should be able to provide food for their own children. While economic theories of international trade continue to be debated, we must remember the real lives affected by our purchasing habits. The developed world's demand for coffee in massive quantities has led to a worldwide coffee glut. Coffee prices have fallen and the lives of many coffee growers have become almost unlivable. The farmers deserve a fair price for their product and we can secure that by ask for Fair Trade coffee, tea and produce in our local super markets, grocery stores and coffee shops.

The month of October has been designated "Fair Trade Month" by TransFair USA. This is the perfect time to start buying Fair Trade coffee or other products for you and your family. We can take the opportunity during Sukkot to remember those who still depend on the cycle of the seasons as we celebrate this harvest festival.

To learn more about the Jewish obligation to engage in Fair Trade practices please visit the Religious Action Center's Fair Trade Coffee Issue Page.

Donald Cohen-Cutler is Legislative Assistant with the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.

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