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giving and taking on Shavuot

This was originally an e-mail I sent out a year ago for Shavuot.  As a giver of tzedakah, a worker for a tzedakah, and yes, even a recipient, this d’var Torah sums up my feelings and experience being on both sides of the coin.

There is a problem with chessed (kindness).  Chessed kills.  Every time something is done for someone else, that person feels that a small part of his independence has been taken away, that a small part of him has died.  Chazal tell us “he who hates [receiving] gifts [is one who] lives.” – not “is better off,” but “lives.”  Additionally, according to Chazal, the only true act of chessed is for one who is dead.  This is because only by performing chessed for the dead does one give in such a way that it does kill the person who receives the chessed.

Lot was crushed by the chessed of Avraham Avinu.  The more Avraham did for Lot, the more Lot hated Avraham.  Lot eventually leaves Avraham and becomes a dayan (government official) in Sodom, a land defined by the antithesis of chessed, a land where “what is mine is mine and yours is yours.”  When Lot eventually is forced to leave Sodom, the angels offer him to go to Avraham, but Lot refuses to go.  As long as he is by Avraham, he is crushed by Avraham’s chessed and his independence is lost.

Avraham was not the first being to encounter such a reaction to chessed; God was.  Upon being approached by God for his partaking in forbidden fruit, Adam not only admits his sin, but according to the Midrash adds “and I’ll eat it again.”  Any scenario, no matter how much it reflects paradise, is an infringement of Adam’s independence by which he asserts himself.  He had to sin in order to truly live.  The Gemara asks if Adam had a choice in sinning and indeed, one opinion states that he did not.  He wanted to live and God had taken all independence from him.  He had no choice.

But there is a choice; there is always a choice.  When someone receives the chessed of another, he is allowing that person to flourish as a human being.  We are the consequences of our actions and those who give are defined by their generosity; it becomes part of their very being.  Those who receive in turn give the givers the ability to grow into a better human being.

The first place we encounter this view of chessed is with Ruth.  When Ruth comes back to Boaz’s field, Naomi asks her “where were you?  Where did you glean today?  Thank God for whoever helped you out.”  Ruth responds somewhat strangely, “the person for whom I did chessed was Boaz.”  She did not recognize Naomi’s question of who helped her.  She states that it was she who performed chessed for Boaz by letting him be nice to her.  She gave an old man the chance to give, and in doing so gave him the ability to live again.  Ruth’s view of chessed is the basis for relationship, love, and eventually the basis for the ideal government of the king who is defined by love (Dovid means “the one who loves.”)

On Shavout we answer the objection of Adam and Lot.  They told us that chessed kills. We respond that it does not; when viewed from the point of mutuality, chessed becomes a relationship of love.  And so, on Shavuot we experience both the love we have for God as well as the love we have for one another.  For it is only in the context of others – God, our parents, children, siblings, spouses, and friends– that we can truly appreciate all that we are and what we have.

Chag Sameach

High Holidays on a low budget – Pesach

There is no Holiday whose spending is completely out of control quite like Pesach.  But I think that if a slightly different approach is taken to the Holiday, your wallet may brave the financial storm at the end of the rainy season.

1 – Begin with the question of “how much can I spend?”  Then run through a system of reverse budgeting.  Break this down into as many groups as you can for Pesach in order to see where you can cut (usually I recommend fewer categories, but when you are trying to break apart wasteful spending, you need more categories.)

2 – Before shopping, learn the laws of Passover.  You’ll be surprised how much you don’t have to buy.  Do you need a separate toothpaste that tastes like a mix of rum and foot or can you just open a new tube of what you already have?  Do you need a new deodorant?  What brands are already Kosher for Passover?  You’ll never know until you learn.  I recommend the CRC’s website as a good starting point.

3 – Make a list and scout a few stores.  Normally I would not insist on making a list and price checking the items in a few locations all in one week, but due to the magnitude of how much there is to buy for Pesach, I would recommend doing so.  If you make time to make a few more trips, you’ll be able to save a bundle.

4 – Speaking of making time, another big moneysaver is making time to clean lettuce.  Buying already clean romaine lettuce is much more expensive than cleaning it yourself.  Schedule time to soak the lettuce a few times, clean the leaves and check them.

5 – Watch out for Kosher for Passover candy and cakes.  They are insanely overpriced and no one really eats them because you just served a 5 course meal with 7 main courses.  A bowl of fruit will be much more refreshing after a long meal and much easer on your wallet.

6 – Remember that Pesach is only 7 days (8 in the diaspora).  You only need food for seven days, half of which are Chol HaMoed where you’ll be out of the house.  So don’t pack up on food for all seven days – buy a bit less.  If you run out of something (the worst fear of every Jewish woman) you can always buy a bit more on Chol HaMoed.  It is better to buy less and to have to go back to the store on Chol HaMoed than to buy too much and waste the food.

7 – For families starting out – Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your Pesach kitchen.  You do not need to buy every appliance just because Pesach is at your house.  Buy a few appliances and try to borrow some others from friends who are going away for the seder(s).  Maybe you’ll even use plastic dishes the first couple of years.  Then, add a bit to your repertoire of Pesach paraphernalia each year.  You’ll be surprised how quickly it builds up; within five years you’ll have everything.  But in the short run, make due with what you can afford.

8 – Used some the strategies I mentioned last Sukkot for Chol HaMoed trips

9 – Finally, plan for Pesach right after Pesach.  Bank in NY my family uses the Artscroll Youth Haggadah as the standard at the table.  While these Haggadot usually retail for $7 a copy, my mom bought all of ours for $3 a copy – by buying them right after Pesach when all the extras were on clearance.

A few other thoughts:

A – As always, remember that there are those less fortunate than us.  Find a charity that gives Maot Chittin to help those in need.

B – Take ha lachma anya seriously.  If you know someone who needs a place, inviting him or her for a Pesach meal is hachnasat orchim, tzedakah and being a good person all rolled into one.

Shabbat Shalom

High Holidays on a low budget – Purim

Happy Adar!  Here are some tips to make sure that “venahfoch hoo” does not refer to your wallet. 

(1) Make your own mishloach manot – Why spend ₪ 80 on a basket with ₪ 7 worth of food when you can make something special yourself?  Making a mishloach manot can be a five minute process that saves hundreds of shekels.  And for those with patience and ability, home cooked foods are always a big hit.

(2) For those with a large list of mishloach manot to give – regift ASAP.  I have some friends who live in a community where they are expected to give literally dozens of mishloach manot, and will receive the same as well.  One friend told me that one year he decided that if he would just wait until 10 AM to start giving his mishloach manot, he could regift the mishloach manot he already received.  This method not only saves money, but cuts down on wasted food to be thrown out before Pesach.  There were still some close friends that he gave nicer mishloach manot to, but when it comes to mishloach manot given en masse, it is better not to go broke.

(3) Make your own costume – I have always felt that buying an already made costume is a bit unimaginative.  I don’t mean to make every item from scratch, but you can take a raw or simple costume and use your imagination to make it look nicer.  Last year I was dressed as a leprechaun and while I bought a bow tie (₪ 10), I designed the hat myself using green shelving paper (₪ 3) and a hat (₪ 15), while wearing my own green shirt.  Sadly, I found out that most Israelis don’t know what a leprechaun is (I kept being asked if I was from ale yarok).

Oh, and a note to teenage Israelis – when you buy a costume, you are supposed to add clothing.  Dressing like a devil/tramp, an angel/tramp, an astronaut/tramp, a construction worker/tramp, a witch/tramp and a bunny/tramp is all the same thing – dressing like a tramp.  I am not asking you to wear a burka, but some pants would be a good start.  And for the men – dressing like a bum is not dressing up if that is how you dress year-round.

(4) Finally, don’t let the other mitzvot make you skimp on the most important one – matanat leevyonim.  I aim to spend roughly an equal amount on matanat leevyonim as I do for all the other expenses for Purim combined.  And although there is not mitzvah of matanat leevyonim the day after, the mitzvah of tzedakah always exists.  Consider saving some of your mishloach manot food that you’re not going to eat anyways and give it to someone who really needs it.

PS – Below is my recipe for Jonny’s Irish Cream.  It’s good, parve, and is a great idea for the shehakol in your mishloach manot.

1 container of non-dairy creamer (about 4/5 of a pint)

3-4 eggs

1 cup of vodka

6-8 tablespoons of sugar

3 tablespoons of chocolate syrup

2 teaspoons of instant coffee

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon of almond extract

This recipe makes approximately 1 liter of Irish Creme.

When preparing be sure to use an electronic mixer – otherwise there will be little egg bits which are not too nice.  If you do not have an electronic mixer, then pour the finished product through a strainer in order to remove the little egg bits.

Chag Sameach

High Holidays on a low budget: Hannukah

I know, Hannukah, isn’t technically one of the High Holidays, but it is one of the most expensive ones.  And to complicate things more, finding gifts for our loved ones is not only expensive, but difficult as well.

Hannah from A Mother in Israel reminded me of the obvious truth that many overlook: when considering a gift, look for something personal that appeals to the recipient.  Apparently, it is the thought that counts.  Some ideas like a massage at a spa, or something that has to do with the receipt’s hobby will always have a personal touch.

Sometimes, the personal touch is not limited to what you can buy, but what you can make.  Miriam from Israeli Kitchen wrote in the following idea.

“Responding to your appeal for Hannukah gifts that are easy on the pocket, I’d say that good-quality home-made food and drink is always acceptable.

A pretty papier-maiche box full of cookies, 3 kinds

Home-made Kahlua or Irish Cream – recycle an attractive bottle or break down and buy one. Recipes widely available on the Net.

Two loaves of home-baked bread, 1 whole-wheat and 1 white.

Chocolate milk mix: 2 Tblsp. cocoa, 3 Tblsp. sugar, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1 package vanilla sugar. Put all into an attractive cellophane bag or small ziploc bag. Stick a label on the bag instructing to put the contents in a blender with a liter of cold milk, blend for a few minutes, serve.”

What I like about this is how gourmet this is, how thoughtful it is, and how inexpensive it is (this is a blog about budgeting after all…).  Miriam’s idea takes the idea of a several hundred shekel gift basket and makes it warm and personal, all while breaking the supply chain in half.

While I am talking about this idea, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my recipe for Jonny’s Irish Cream.  It’s good, parve, and can even be made Kosher for Pesach.

1 container of non-dairy creamer (about 4/5 of a pint)

3-4 eggs

1 cup of vodka

6-8 tablespoons of sugar

3 tablespoons of chocolate syrup

2 teaspoons of instant coffee

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon of almond extract

This recipe makes approximately 1 liter of Irish Creme.

When preparing be sure to use an electronic mixer – otherwise there will be little egg bits which are not too nice.  If you do not have an electronic mixer, then pour the finished product through a strainer in order to remove the little egg bits.

I know this post is a bit heavy on the food.  I plan to go through some other Hannukah ideas over the next week or so.  Right now, I suddenly feel very hungry.

this Hannukah break the supply chain

At least once a holiday season, I walk past the shuk and see the beautiful baskets on sale for the holidays.  It takes me a short moment for the pleasantries to sink in, but when it does, I usually have the following reaction:

“90 shekels?!  This person is selling bamaba, two mikupelets and a bad bottle of wine in a basket for 90 shekels?!  Who in their right mind would pay for this?”

But of course someone does pay for this; otherwise the sellers wouldn’t make the gift sets every holiday.  These sellers are making money by utilizing the supply chain.

The supply chain refers to the various steps needed in order to purchase, produce and distribute an item.  If you were making cars, your supply chain would include your goods from suppliers, your assembly equipment, your assemblers, your delivery people and your sales people. 

The same principle can be applied to buying Hannukah presents.  In the case of a Hannukah present, the supply chain includes the items for the present, the compilation and the delivery.  And while everyone loves one stop shopping you’d be surprised how much you can save by breaking apart the supply chain.  Let me give a few examples:

Sending photos abroad:  If you have a mother or grandparents abroad, few presents can compare to sending some pictures of yourself (or more importantly, your kids) via snapfish.com or a similar service.   Sending photos allows you to share your time and life with someone abroad in a more tangible way than phone calls alone.  But if you look at these sites, you’ll notice where the supplier strikes it big: packaging.  Frames on these sites are typically jacked up as much as 300% retail price, and sometimes over 500% of what you can find in a local store.  I would recommend (1) finding a frame from another source (amazon.com, ebay.com) and sending it separately or (2) not sending a frame at all.  Your mom and grandma already have lots of frames sitting around in the house.

Sending flowers abroad:  1-800-flowers makes their money on pretty much every piece of the supply chain. They charge more not only for the flowers, but for the vase and delivery as well.  Alternatively, you can call your local store (which may even be the safe affiliate 1-800-flowers uses), tell them your limit (including tax) and then build the bundle of choice.  Want free delivery?  Ask your old neighbor lives next to the recipient to lend you a hand a pick it up. He or she will probably be glad to be part of the giving process and will end up saving you $15.

Sending a gift basket to a local friend:  So here we are, right where we started.  Just compare the cost of buying a basket (₪3 shekels) cellophane (₪2 shekels) and candy (₪10 shekels) and some wine (₪20 shekels, ₪40 if you’re really generous) to buying a pre-made basket with bad wine for ₪90 shekels.  Similarly, if you shop at a place like beauty care and a local super-pharm, you can make a nice basket with massage oils, creams, and beauty products for around ₪50 shekels.

The trick is to use your imagination.  And most of all, next time you see an item for sale and think “I can make it for half the price,” go out and do it.

On a similar note, I am trying to put together a post for some good gifts for Hannukah, and extract some money saving ideas.  If you would not mind, please contact me with some of the successful presents that you have either given or received.  You can e-mail me at jonnydegani@gmail.com or just leave a reply below (note: if you reply to this message with a gift idea, I will not print it below in this post, but save it for the coming post.)  Thanks.

High Holidays on a low budget – Sukkot

If I could only visit Israel once I year, I would pick Sukkot.  The entire country celebrates together for an entire week, combining family, religion, and country.  But this is also an expensive Holiday – putting aside the sukkah, lulav and etrog, entertainment for 6 days of Chol HaMoed is a lot.  As always, knowledge is the key, and planning frugally, your best friend:

#1 – If you can’t afford a Sukkah start simple and build on it every year.  When I built my Sukkah back in New City, NY (ten points for whoever has heard of New City), I built a simple cube with tarps for walls.  The first few years we used a couple of bamboo sticks and branches for the schach.  Every year, we bought another part to make the Succah a bit better (a bamboo mat, better wood, nicer decorations etc.) and after 5 years we had every gadget a Sukkah could ever need.  If we were to have spent all of our money on every item in one year, or buy a fancy pre-made one, it never would have happened.

#2 – Learn the halachot of lulav and etrog.  People waste tons of money every year in pure ignorance of these laws.  Many buy a pre-packaged “mehudar” set of the 4 species, that is very often not mehudar, and sometimes even not kosher (this is NOT done intentionally.  When they are packaged, they are mehudar, but once in transport, merchandise often gets damaged).  Learn the Halachot and check out the bargain bins of the etrogim.  If you are willing to spend some time, you’ll very often find a kosher, mehudar etrog for a fraction of the mehudar price.  (For those looking, this is a good site with most of the laws).  If you’re afraid that you’ll buy something not Kosher, then go to a shuk that has a Rabbi there to check if what you are buying is Kosher (this is very common in Israel – even in small places like Petah Tikvah).

#3 – Travel with food – There are plenty of events and attractions all over Israel.  Most are very cheap, but plan to make their profit with extremely overpriced food.  Bring some food so you don’t break the bank on temptation.

#4 – Budget Chol HaMoed / Plan your trips – This year we have a long Chol HaMoed.  Begin by asking yourself how much you can spend.  Now write down the list of activities you want to do and see what can fit your budget and what cannot.  It is important to understand the tradeoffs of what you can manage (ie. “if we go to this festival, then we cannot go to that one”, or “if we go here, we have to bring our own food to these two events.”).  Then choose the combination that best suits your family.

#5 – Shop for a babysitter in advance.  If you have to work on Chol HaMoed, then you’ll need someone to watch your kids.  Go to shul and ask the Rabbi if he knows of a trustworthy girl who could use the extra cash.  Meet her, have her spend a couple of hours with your family and then let her watch your kids for a day or two.  Consider finding another family where the parents need to work so the babysitter can watch both sets of kids and make more money, while saving each parent some money individually.

#6 – Spend a night at the shtiebels.  Go one night to an area with a bunch of different Chasidic sects and go from one party to another.  When I was in Jerusalem I went from Boyan to Karlin (where they danced what seemed to be the largest real-live game of snake ever) to Toldas Aharon and a bunch of others in-between.  Despite media portrayals, Chassidim are very welcoming to outsiders, even irreligious Jews, as long as you respect their requests (when they ask “no pictures”, that means no pictures.)

#7 – Have a Sukkot party (that does not focus on food alone!) – Invite some friends over and play some games from “Whose Line is it Anyway?”.  Play Pictionary, Apples to Apples or something that can entertain your guests.  Remember, the real secret to making through rough economic times is returning to a time when togetherness and simplicity entertained us, not expensive objects.

#8 – Use your Sukkah.  I always find it odd that many people build a fancy, expensive Sukkah, and only use it to eat their meals.  This is your house – spend a night playing board games.  Tell stories together.  Get everyone to help out when transforming the Sukkah from a dining room to a living room.  Heck, nowadays you can bring in your computer and watch a movie in the Sukkah.  It can only be homey if you make it your home.

#9 – Find free stuff to do – there are usually a variety of free festivals around Israel where you can bring the family and enjoy.  If anyone would like to mention any festivals they have heard about or have some more money saving ideas, please list them below.

Chag Sameach!

High Holidays on a low budget – Rosh Hashannah

It’s Elul already, and the Chagim are upon us. This is one of the three most expensive times of the year (the others being Pesach and Hannukah), so some frugality is certainly in order. Here are some money saving tips for this upcoming Rosh Hashannah

#1 – Sending flowers abroad? One of the ways I cut down on this cost is by ordering them from a flower place close to where I am sending the flowers, instead of using 1-800-flowers or the like. The big surprise is that not only is it cheaper, but it is the same local florist that 1-800-flowers uses!

#2 – There is a well known custom of buying jewelry/clothes for women and toys for children for the Holidays. Ask your wife about helping you buy something in your price range for her. Take a Friday and go through the shuk to find something nice together. The time spent and the togetherness in finding the item may make up for its lack of material value. As for kids, remember how simple kids are. They are probably happier with a ₪ 5 toy from the shuk then they are with a ₪ 300 doohickey from Toys R Us.

#3 – Share the simanim – Many people buy simanim for Rosh Hashanah. This is a sampling of many rare fruits and vegetables to symbolize a new year that is sweet/fruitful/enemy-destroying/bad-decree-tearing-up. People usually sample these simanim just a bit and the leftovers go bad and get tossed– so serve less. This can be hard, because the fruits only come in a certain size package, so the best thing to do is to go to a neighbor and arrange to share your simanim and split the cost.

#4 – Plan and limit your meals. You don’t need to have every side dish at every meal. Plan a meal with a main dish and a couple of sides, no more. After that people just overeat and don’t get to savor any of your cooking.

#5 – Not every meal has to be meat. You can have a fish meal or (dare I say it) even a dairy meal during a holiday. My family has a dairy meal the first morning of Passover because we just overate the night before and are about to do it again (this is in the States, where we have 2 days). This meal helps out our budget and preserves some of our appetite.

#6 – Eat with friends. Odds are you’re going to cook enough food to feed a small army anyways, so invite a few more people over. In turn, you’re likely to be invited to eat out as well, which can save you from cooking another insanely large meal.

#7 – Borrow a Machzor. It is a bit surprising, but most libraries have Machzorim (even Artscroll) that you can borrow for free.  Buy one after the holidays when they go on clearance so you’ll have one for next year.

#8 – Consider the following story, when giving charity this Rosh Hashannah (taken from Gemara Ketubot 66b):

It once happened that R. Johanan Ben-Zakkai left Jerusalem riding upon a donkey, while his students followed him, and he saw a girl picking barley grains in the dung of Arab cattle. As soon as she saw him she wrapped herself with her hair and stood before him. ‘Master’, she said to him, ‘feed me’. ‘My daughter’, he asked her, ‘who are you?’ ‘I am’, she replied, ‘the daughter of Nakdimon Ben-Gorion’ (one of the richest Noblemen of Israel). ‘My daughter’, he said to her, ‘what has become of the wealth of your father’s house?’ ‘Master’, she answered him, ‘is there not a proverb current in Jerusalem: “The salt of money is giving some away?”‘ (If you want to keep your money, give some to charity)…

Did not Nakdimon Ben-Gurion, however, give charity? Surely it was taught: It was said of Nakdimon Ben-Gurion that, when he walked from his house to the house of study, woolen clothes were spread beneath his feet and the poor followed behind him and rolled them up! (to keep and to sell for their own profit).

If you wish I might reply: (1) He did it for his own glorification — (2) And if you prefer I might reply: He did not act as he should have done, as people say, ‘In accordance with the camel is the burden’

In summary (1) give charity, (2) do not just give it for some fancy honor and (3) give according to what you can realistically afford – don’t be too thrifty, nor too cheap.

If you have any more money saving tips for the Rosh Hashanah, please include them in the comments below so that everyone can benefit. Thanks and have a Happy, Healthy New Year.