Fair trade. A concept that has become more popular over the last thirty years, its essential focus is to make sure that everyone is taken care of. The emotional drive behind this arrangement is that people care deeply not only about being taken care of, but also about taking care of others.
In 2017, the Mayberg Foundation started a project called “MyZuzah” with the goal of putting a kosher mezuzah on the front door of every Jewish home in the world. However, the “subgoal” of this project should not be overlooked. Mezuzot (plural for mezuzah) purchased for this project only come from certified scribes (mostly based in Israel) following a commitment to Fair Trade Standards described as follows:
“We implement Fair Trade Standards in the sourcing and production of each mezuzah. A kosher mezuzah takes time, energy and resources to create. Each mezuzah scroll must be hand-written by an expert scribe under specific conditions. MyZuzah puts people first by only working with partner organizations that pay scribes fairly and decently for such important work. Our Standards ensure that every step and worker in the process of creating your mezuzah is ethical and kosher, beautifying this unique touchpoint that unites us.”
A sofer (scribe) is highly skilled with significant training, who diligently pours over his work for hours upon hours, using a skill set possessed by only a handful of people in the world. To be approximate, Jewish scribes comprise 0.0001% of the world population. That may not be a fair metric, since only a Jew can be a Jewish scribe. However, even when you look at the world Jewish population of roughly 14.7 million, the percentage of scribes still sits at a mere 0.1%.
When such a rare skill set exists in such a small number of people, logic would dictate that their compensation should be commensurate with this level of expertise. If every Jewish home needs mezuzot, every weekday morning millions of Jews lay tefillin, every congregation needs a Torah scroll, yet only about 15,000 people on the planet are capable of producing these items, wouldn’t elevated pay for scribes seem logical?
The truth is that scribes are generally not wealthy, and there is a Talmudic basis for this reality. In Pesachim 50b we learn that the work of a scribe will never make him wealthy lest he then choose to retire and cease producing scrolls, leaving the population bereft of these sacred articles. The Talmud continues by explaining that if a scribe’s intention is solely to produce more genuine, beautiful and honestly written scrolls (i.e. Torah, tefillin or mezuzah) for the public’s benefit, then he will see blessing from his labor.
The sages of the Talmud taught us something incredible through this text: the success of one’s labor, as determined only by God, depends on why he is doing what he is doing. If he is working to make money, he will never become wealthy. However, if he is working simply because he wishes to be an honest and faithful servant seeking only the welfare of God’s children, he will see blessing in his work. Thus, we return to the theme around fair trade practices that I mentioned above: the purpose is to take care of each other.
The world of Jewish philanthropy possesses a myriad of exactly these types of people. Many have been blessed with more than what they need and have chosen to deploy those resources to improving the lives of others whether it be physically, emotionally or spiritually. And this is precisely the reason that many of these good-hearted individuals maintain the ability to give for many years. God sees them as a healthy investment, as the gifts given to them are used to take care of God’s people. This Divinely created arrangement can inspire all of us to continue giving.
Using the example of the MyZuzah project, giving has inspired more giving with a magnificent cycle of everyone feeling valued and cared for. The funders make certain that their vendors (the scribes) feel fairly compensated for their expertise, and, in turn, the mezuzah recipients receive their fairly and honestly produced mezuzahs free of charge. The undeniable reality that emerges from the experience is that Jews work best when their central focus is taking care of each other.
So it turns out that successful scribes and philanthropists have quite an essential value in common: their central focus is to appreciate and, consequently, to elevate the lives of others. However, to act on this value day after day is no cakewalk and thus deserves the undying gratitude and recognition of those who benefit. We would never describe philanthropy as a mere “hobby,” as it demands an enormous amount of time, resources and energy. We also should not forget our faithful scribes who train diligently, acquire an incredibly unique expertise vital to all Jews and sit focused and steady for hours on end to earn their modest, yet holy, living. When executing their work properly, scribes embrace their ultimate purpose of doing unto others what is being done unto them.
When we take care of others, we instill within them the ability to continue the cycle of giving, which is a lesson everyone working in the Jewish nonprofit and philanthropic sector could embrace.