As always, it’s a pleasure to be here in Israel, even if only for a few days. The very long flight is quickly forgotten as we drive up the beautiful hills and approach Jerusalem. And a regular fixture whenever I am here is Friday night at the Kotel. I enjoy the organized chaos with diverse people and minyanim everywhere you look, and I always manage to bump into plenty of friends and family.
But this isn’t about the Kotel itself, but rather how Orthodox Jews get there on a Friday afternoon. That special time as the Shabbat approaches brings forth an interesting economic exchange between passengers and drivers. I’m staying with family in Katamon, and a ride by the meter would typically cost NIS 30-35. The cost of a taxi ride in Israel is itself worthy of a doctoral thesis. However, in this scenario we have to add something to the equation. Any money that is in my pocket after the journey must be disposed of, as it is forbidden to carry money on Shabbat. I cannot pay by credit card for the same reason. The driver knows this as well when he is hailed on Rechov Palmach. He complains: there is lots of traffic, it’s close to Shabbat, but of course he does accept the fare. To be safe, I took NIS 40, but his opening gambit was 50. When I told him that was all I had, of course he agreed. How much would he have accepted? 35? 30? I don’t know and that is what makes it interesting. We are both taking a bit of a gamble.
In theory I could’ve told him to run the meter down, and when it reaches the amount I have, leave us and we will walk (I did that once on a Friday afternoon trip to Geula and a combination of my poor Hebrew, bad traffic and not enough cash left us a little stranded). But this is Israel, and everything is a negotiation.
So everything’s going well; there isn’t much traffic. We are heading down Rechov Agron when the driver spots another Orthodox Jew looking for a taxi. Gee – I wonder where he could be headed at this hour? There is a spare seat in the taxi, so I tell the driver it’s OK to stop, and the next stage of the negotiation begins.
The driver wants NIS 30 from this fellow, which is a slight premium over what the fare would be if he was travelling alone. He is a little reticent; after all, the taxi is going there anyway with us – why should he pay extra? Has the taxi done anything more just for him? Has the driver gone out of his way (other than stopping at the side of the road for a minute)?
Then I pipe up in defence of the driver: what is the opportunity cost to the extra passenger for this ride? He was prepared to pay NIS 30 for the ride, and he’s getting the ride. So is it such a bad thing to pay? Is it the biggest sin in the world to give a taxi driver a windfall on Erev Shabbat? And after all, it’s not as if he would keep the money. Worst case, he can deem it tzedakah.
And so the extra passenger accepts. At the end, it turns out he brought along NIS 40 (as notes instead of coins – a cardinal error in taxi negotiations) so the driver did very well in the end. Clearly he’s not just a good driver, but understands his customers. I didn’t ask if he was actually an Economics professor in Russia before he made aliyah!