Several years ago, I wrote an article about two-day yomim tovim and how, in my opinion, one of the great benefits of living here is not only that we have one less day of yom tov, but also that one-day yomim tovim were the standard as set in the Torah. We enjoy yom tov, but having chol ha’moed time for family, friends, and fun is one of the highlights of our year. It’s always been a special time no matter where we lived.
In Israel, while yom tov is always a national and work holiday, there are people who are required to work on chol ha’moed. One of the great benefits of working in the yeshiva/nonprofit world was having those days free, with only limited work-based obligations. With all of us off for similar vacation periods, we had the freedom to plan family days throughout the chagim. It was truly a privilege.
When we lived in the U.S. and I was working in the business world and then the yeshiva world, I always looked forward to the chagim and chol ha’moed. The chagim meant a few days of vacation (even if I had to charge them against my vacation day/sick day allotment) and I generally managed to get a couple of chol ha’moed days off as well — all of it when I was in yeshiva. While I was certainly less productive during that season, I was a salaried employee and earned my paycheck either way.
As I said, this was definitely a great privilege. Many of my friends and neighbors did not have the same opportunities in their schedule.
One of the toughest parts about becoming a business owner, and especially a “retail” business, was the change in how I looked at the chagim. Our “retail” client base is not fixed. We don’t get a set amount of revenue on a monthly basis. The only time we make money is when we are open and can fix cars. Additionally, people have to want to come get their cars fixed.
Obviously, when yom tov rolls around, we lose quite a few days of business. Not only that, but because people want to have chol ha’moed family activities, very few people are motivated to bring their cars in during that week. Basically, the only people who come are those who have emergency situations or who are so busy during the rest of the year that they have no other opportunity to come to the garage.
Having to be available to fix broken-down cars so that people can use them for their tiyulim (activities) is actually the halachic basis upon which we open the garage for half a day on chol ha’moed. We take turns showing up and very few cars come in. Our sales are generally 80 percent lower that week than on an average week.
You can imagine — and those of you who are business owners are certainly nodding in agreement at this point — how this impacts the bottom line. My mechanics want their full salaries. The landlord wants his rent. Taxes and benefits all need to be paid. And we are either closed or have very low sales for at least 50 percent of the month.
Intellectually, I understood that I had to focus on the 12-month performance instead of worrying about those couple of months. So long as our averages were good and we were hitting our targets, we’d be fine. But emotionally, it wasn’t as simple.
In the past few years I really began to look at the yom tov months with trepidation and disappointment. Yom tov meant tight cash flow and sleepless nights worrying about covering the bills. I was new to this whole business-owner thing and it takes a certain mindset to succeed. Yom tov scared me. And it bothered me that my outlook toward yom tov had changed so dramatically.
This year, thank G-d, things were different. Goldie even mentioned that she saw a difference in my attitude towards yom tov — a lack of stress and anxiety. September, a month filled with erev yom tov, yom tov, and chol ha’moed all coming mid-week this year, was actually the worst month in sales we’ve had since I started the business.
And it boils down to two things. One is emunah (yeah, I know, Shmu is not normally a guy who writes about this kind of thing). I’ve lived the annual cycle a few times and really understand the ebb and flow of the business a lot better. I’ve grown to anticipate the variations of my year and plan accordingly.
Witnessing the way our work comes in and generates income, a process that seems to have no rhyme or reason to it, I have really come to internalize the belief that our earnings are ordained in advance. Yes, we do our part. But sometimes we’ll work like crazy and make no money while other times we’ll see a nice profit from almost no work at all.
This emunah is freeing and it’s made me a better merchant. I’m happy when a customer needs only minimal work on a repair. I have no problem doing certain work gratis because I appreciate the work a customer may have already done with us. I truly mean it when I tell someone whose car has just undergone their annual maintenance that I hope to only see them for their next routine maintenance.
People feel this sincerity. They appreciate the honesty it takes to not try to leverage more money out of each job. I used to be very impressed (I still am) and couldn’t understand it when I’d go into a store and ask the workers who the ba’al ha’bayit (owner) was and they would point to the heavens. But I understand them a lot more now.
But it’s not just emunah. Understanding my customer base has also relieved my yom tov anxiety. My business is in Israel and the vast majority of my customers are Jewish. (I doubt we have more than six or seven non-Jewish customers in a year.)
So what, you say? Well, we close for Shabbat each and every week of the year. Even if I weren’t religious, we’d be closed for Shabbat. Why? Because we wouldn’t have any customers. In Israel, certainly in Bet Shemesh, no one is interested in bringing their cars in for repair on Shabbat. The religious customer because, well, it’s Shabbat. And the non-religious? It’s their day off. They don’t want to spend it at the garage.
This is unlike the U.S. In the U.S., both Shabbat and Sunday are days off. And many non-Jewish and non-religious people use Shabbat as a day to get stuff done. So closing on Shabbat could potentially lead to significant loss of revenue.
Once I internalized that, I realized that yom tov and chol ha’moed are the same! Closing for the day (or half the chol ha’moed day) costs me nothing. I wouldn’t get any business anyway because my customers would never show up on those days to get anything done. If I was in the U.S. and served non-Jewish or non-religious customers who would potentially come to the shop on one of those days, I might lose that sale or that job to another vendor.
But not here in Israel. They’ll still need the work, but since they wouldn’t have dreamed of coming on a day we’re closed for chag, they’ll just manage to come on those days when it isn’t yom tov or chol ha’moed. I’ll still get the same amount of work.
Once I realized this and internalized that it truly is a predictable business cycle, my anxiety dropped and I got back to really getting into yom tov. Yet another great thing about living in Israel.
Shmuel Katz, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July 2006. Before making aliyah, Shmuel was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.