What specifically does Judaism say about money? I often tell people that Christians believe that there is nobility in poverty (the meek will inherit the earth) but Jews have no such concept and encourage people to have means to take care of their families. This is me spewing out gibberish based on no actual facts. Is this in fact true and if so, what does Jewish law/wisdom say about money?
As with almost everything else, the Jewish attitude to money is quite balanced. We are aware of the pitfalls deriving from being obsessed with money. Those who want, never have enough.
On the other hand, with money one can actualize abundant charity.
To those who contend that money is the root of all evil, we would counter that it is the attitude to money that is the problem. Those who seize the opportunity for money-related kindness have made wealth a virtue. Those who are miserly with their money are, in the view of our great thinkers, irreligous. That is because one of our basic religious tenets is that everything belongs to God, and those who are miserly behave as if the money is actually theirs. That is a rejection of God.
It is not only via money that we can be charitable. Our words and deeds, our time and concern, are likewise agents for the good. But money can be of immense help, and the charity opportunties made possible by the judicious and sensitive expenditure of money are enormous.
Finally, we express our love of God, as articulated in the famous Shema faith affirmation, via our material possessions. We are asked to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our resources (Deuteronomy, 6:5).
From the Jewish point of view, money is morally neutral – neither inherently good or bad. Like any other instrument, its morality is judged by how we use it. The Torah asserts that God, as creator, is the ultimate owner of everything; yet, Jewish law allows for private property. The Torah has a lot to say about how we use our property to care for ourselves and our community. It also prohibits us from abusing our worldly power.
According to Jewish law, we should use our property in the service of holiness. In the Biblical passage we read along with the Sh’ma (Deut. 6:4-9) we are commanded to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Traditionally, “all your might” is understood as loving God with our worldly property (see Rashi ad loc). The Mishna asks: “Who is wealthy? The one who is satisfied with his/her portion” (Avot 4:1). From a Jewish perspective, there is nothing inherently wrong with accumulating wealth; but our wealth should be for the purpose of serving God and caring for his creatures, not for self-aggrandizement. Our tradition also cautions against excessive wealth and wasting money that could be better spent to care for those in need.
Our sages taught that one must earn a living in order to provide for his/her family. The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) states that parents must raise their children, teach them Torah, help them find a mate, teach them a trade, and also teach them how to swim! In other words, each of us is responsible for giving our children what they need to be self-sufficient in this world. The ideal of Torah is the dignity of work and self-sufficiency.
Our tradition also emphasizes repeatedly our responsibility to care for the poor and vulnerable in our society. Tithing, gleaning, and compulsory donations to charity were early forms of welfare and taxation. The Book of Deuteronomy (15:8) states that “you must open your hand to the poor person and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” The rabbis interpreted from this that public charity must provide sufficient to uphold the basic dignity of every person.
Every person – even a poor person – is obligated to give tzedakah. The Torah’s concept of ma’aser requires us to give at least 10% of our net income to charity. However, one must not give so much as to impoverish his or her family. According to the Talmud (Ketubot 50a) a person should not give more than 20% or else risk becoming poor themselves.
In sum, the Torah does not idealize self-inflicted poverty or asceticism. Instead, our tradition seeks balance: “Desirable is the study of Torah alongside earning a living (derech eretz)” (Pirkei Avot 2:2).
Mainstream Judaism, unlike the Catholic Church, has never seen poverty as a desirable or holy condition. In the Talmud, particularly in the tractate called Pikre Avot (often translated as “Ethis of our Fathers”) the Rabbis instruct sages and scholars to always have a way of making a living outside of study of Torah. This may bein part, as a response to both the aestheticism of early Christians and of certyain fringe Jewish groups who practiced poverty as a vitrute.
As the Rabbinate and teaching became professional positions within the Jewish community, Rabbis, in particular were never expected to live in poverty, but they were supported by the communities they served in a manner that often placed them at average in terms of income and lifestyle within their community. That continues to this day, with some senior Rabbis of very large congregations earning incomes that put them in the top 10-20% of the congregation.
In the days of the Shtetls of Eastern Europe (and even earlier in Western Europe) it was common practice for rich men to have their daughters marry Torah scholars so that the scholar could continue his study without being a burden on the community and would be able to have lots of children, some of whom would continue in scholarship, some of whom would enter business to continue the cycle.
Unfortunately, in the State of Israel, there are communities who feel their study of Torah entitles them to live on the social welfare programs of the state and even force young people who are not as inclined to such study live in the poverty that comes from having no other skills. There are efforts to change this in Israel, but what is clear is that these communities have strayed far from the very principles that they study on a regular basis. Ultimately our tradition teaches that we are not to make ourselves a burden on the community, but we should only accept tzedekah in that form when we truly need it.
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