What does the Torah say about… energy prices?

IN THE UK, energy to private homes and businesses is provided by the ‘Big Six’ companies. Regularly, there is news of price hikes and conversation about how the elderly and impoverished will suffer through the winter. What does the Torah say about this?

Jewish law has a special in- junction against price hikes being forced on the people. Everyone complains about Pesach food prices. One function of a Beth Din is to keep prices down! In Talmudic times, people had to replace kitchen earthenware before Pesach and providers would take unfair advantage of the basic need to use chametz-free pottery to prepare Pesach food.

In reaction to this, the rabbis declared one year that year- round pottery was permitted to use on Pesach! This forced the prices down and broke the monopoly-induced price fix. Similarly, the government ought to prohibit companies from raising prices for essential supplies at premium percentages. Imposing penalties is not the solution – nationalising the company would be far preferable. In Judaism, competition is not only permitted but encouraged.

However, to protect the customer, Jewish Law fixes an upper limit on retail, that one should not charge more than one sixth on the original price at which a product was bought. Government should lead by ex- ample and cut the unacceptably high percentage of tax on petrol which makes the freedom of movement so expensive! Another aspect to consider is creating false apprehensions of the truth: Genevat Da’at, literally: “stealing the mind”.

Jacob was fed up of Laban’s constant cheating in business and so fled back to Canaan. Laban had switched the rate of payment on 10 occasions for the sheep that Jacob had bred for him. When companies tempt new customers in with the promise of lower prices and then raise them sharply, they are acting like Laban, forcing the customer to either leave and shop around frequently –or pay one’s way through the steep price fluxes.

Finally, the poor and elderly stand to suffer, and the fifth commandment is thereby dealt a heavy blow. Caring for the elderly in every respect is a strong Jewish value, and certainly protecting their health. The promise of a long life is not only relevant as a reward for looking after our generation, but also for the society in which we live.
• Rabbi Ariel Abel is a Consultant for “For Life” projects and will present at Limmud this year.