Tzena – Israeli austerity in 50s

One of the eternal mysteries of Eretz Yisroel is the origin of Israelis’ “Eleventh Commandment” – “never be a frier.” Never let anyone take unfair advantage of you. One thing is for sure, this aphorism must have jumped in popularity during Israel’s Housewives’ Rebellion of the early ‘50s.


In Israel, old-timers nostalgically remember the time this rebellion took place as the years of Tzena (austerity), the days when people had to queue up to buy powdered eggs and dried milk.

After winning independence, Israeli leaders found themselves in a predicament. A state they had, but in what a state it was! Fighting the war had exhausted Israel’s foreign currency and credit was as hard to find as ducks’ teeth. Immigrants were pouring in by the boatload. Within three years, the country would absorb 700,000 new immigrants, doubling its population of 665,000; the laws of supply and demand threatened to push food prices up beyond the means of the poorer sector. Who would feed them all? A month before Israel’s independence, a UN commission had already warned, “A serious food shortage with the threat of starvation is imminent in Israel.”

In response, the Mapai government, in any case separated from Communism by a hairsbreadth, instigated a regimen that would theoretically steamroller everyone to a lowest denominator. Every citizen would receive the same rations, be he a member of parliament, a farm worker, a bank manager, or a bank sweeper.

This was the Tzena Regime that lasted from April 5709/1949 until the late fifties. The architect of this draconic plan was Dov Yosef, humorously known as Yosef Hamashbir after Yosef who had fed a starving populace in earlier times. As military ruler of Yerushalayim during its siege in the War of Independence, Dov Yosef had proven his ability to stretch out rations to a breaking point.

Years later, Dov Yosef explained to skeptics that strict rationing had been the only way ahead.

“The public does not understand that without the Tzena, hundreds of thousands of people would have simply died of hunger,” he said. “The English had frozen the small amount of Pound Sterling we were entitled to and we were left with no foreign currency to buy foreign produce. Altogether, the land was producing no more than fifteen percent of our food requirements and we had to import almost all our wheat from overseas. We needed to import all the meat, fish, and grains necessary to feed cows and chickens so we could have milk and eggs. This demanded foreign currency and we did not have it!”

Under his new regimen, every Israeli citizen was subjected to a daily diet of about 2,700 calories, calculated by a US nutritional expert as adequate. This included as much standard bread as you could stomach, 60 grams of maize, 58 grams of sugar, 17 grams of rice, 60 grams of flour, 20 grams of peas, 20 grams of margarine, 8 grams of noodles, 200 grams of nonfat cheese, and 5 grams of biscuit. These stingy amounts were compensated by a huge daily allowance of 600 grams of onions.

All this was supplemented by 75 grams of meat a month and small quantities of eggs, soap, chocolate, salted fish, milk powder, jam, etc. To ensure no one took more than their share, ration books and coupons were the order of the day. People had to wait twice in line, once to get their food stamps, and again to lay hands on food.

In July 5710/1950 things became worse when rationing was imposed on clothing and shoes as well, and later on, restrictions were imposed on furniture, providing one of the few surviving artifacts of the Tzena years. Examine the back of superannuated shoddy furniture in Israel and you may still find old-time ration certificates pasted on the back.

Of course, the Tzena also had an impact on Torah observance. A harbinger of the hard times was the Haifa Rabbinate’s announcement in Nissan that kitniyos would be permitted on Pesach that year: “We
hereby announce that due to the rising prices of essential foodstuffs, the Chief Rabbinate of Eretz Yisroel has decided to permit on this year too for the upcoming Pesach: “Rice, dried, peas, lentils, maize, and non-ground lentils.”

Later, in an effort to save money on imported meat, the shailah arose whether it was permitted to import pork for non-Jewish elements of the population, even though it is generally forbidden to trade in treif products.

Another question arose after medical experts advised bakers to add milk powder to bread in order to increase its nutritonal value. This seemed to contravene the ruling of the Gemara (Bava Metzia 81a) that one may not knead bread with milk as this may lead to eating it with meat. At the time, the Responsa Kol Mevaser (volume 1:10) indeed ruled that it was forbidden to eat such bread and that even putting a sticker on bread marking it as milky was not enough.


The small food rations were not always enough, and by 5711/1951 doctors were already reporting a deterioration in women’s health. One woman wrote a long letter to the Haaretz newspaper complaining that rationing was turning motherhood into a heavy burden.

“As people know,” she wrote, “the Office of Supply and Rationing provides 70 extra clothing points for expecting women to allow them to prepare for their future offspring. This amount of points is insufficient even for half of what is necessary. Everyone knows that even with these 70 points it is generally impossible to get anything. There are no diapers, flannel diapers, or sheets, and most items of [baby] clothing cannot be got in a shop unless one has the luck to have ‘connections’ and pays an astronomical price for them, even this as a favor. On top of that, one has to bustle from place to place, no easy task for someone who is expectant. “

Most of the Israeli public had approved of the austerity system and as long as everyone did his bit people were more or less happy to comply. However, within the first few months the black market began its insidious growth and no one wanted to be a frier. Things went from bad to worse. By January 5710/1950, merchants were closing their shops in protest and quietly selling stock for more normal prices out the back door. If you asked for the price of a pair of shoes in Tel Aviv, they would answer you, “Such and such with points, such and such without points.”

Turning to doctors to get fake illness certificates that guaranteed higher rations, people discovered that Tel Aviv doctors were four times more likely to issue such certificates than their counterparts in Yerushalayim.

The government sprang into action. Warnings were plastered on walls, “Destroy the Black Market before it destroys you!” Prime Minister David Ben Gurion created the “Center to Fight the Black Market” and results were not long in coming. The Jerusalem Post reported during this period: “Searches of vehicles by Economic Police on
roads leading into Tel Aviv on Thursday and Friday revealed 200 kilograms of cucumbers, 600 eggs, 800 kilos of assorted vegetables and fruit, as well as a large number of slaughtered chickens. Several arrests were made and a number of vehicles were impounded…”

However, all this was too little too late. By February of 5710/1950, the center’s 1,500 inspectors had opened a measly 5,000 police files against apprehended offenders and only 70 offenders ended up in jail. Even worse, the austerity laws turned the people into a nation of “criminals,” and rumors that inspectors were taking booty to enjoy in their own homes made people even less inclined to cooperate.

Chocolate manufacturers skimped on sugar and sold the excess on the side, dairymen mixed milk with water to create a black market surplus, farmers reported record numbers of stolen cows to camouflage the swapping of their livestock for lucre, and bribed officials directed imported products to more profitable avenues. One imaginative builder inflated the estimated cement needed to build a hotel by double, sold half the cement on the black market, and financed the hotel building with the profits.

By now, people were openly sympathizing with offenders; after all, weren’t they all in the same boat? Housewives flouted the law in open rebellion and few complained. One young boy sent out to a farm to smuggle in a chicken was instructed to hide it under his bus seat on the way home. But the chicken had not been warned to cooperate and as government inspectors jumped on board at a checkpoint, the fowl set up a raucous cackle, drawing the officials like a magnet. The fellow travelers knew exactly what to do in this sort of emergency. As if on cue, a chorus of clucking erupted from every corner of the bus..

On another occasion, bus passengers even beat up an inspector when he wanted to arrest a young soldier who was hiding a chicken under his shirt.


After a year or two, the Mapai government was forced to lighten the Tzena decrees since unlike their idol, Stalin, who could impose his will at the point of a gun, the government was liable to lose the next elections if things got too bad. The opposing General Zionist Party was already siphoning off many votes from Mapai in municipal elections thanks to their slogan, “Let people live in this land!”

It also helped when the economy got a big shot in the arm after reparation agreements between Israel and Germany in 5712/1952 poured $3 billion worth of German marks into the economy.

The Tzena years formally ended in 5719/1959 when Pinchas Sapir, Minister of Trade and Industry, announced an end to the government’s austerity policies. Now, all Israelis had to worry about was growing inflation and rising prices, which the austerity policies had tried to bottle up. The Tzena had served its purpose. As one politician put it, “A whole generation cursed Dov Yosef, even though his action was one of the greatest achievements during the epoch of absorption.”

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