Chazal’s Financial Planner

The Need to Budget

Just in case anyone is at all unclear, it’s irresponsible to spend irresponsibly. Sure, God is the source of our financial support. But His Torah makes it obvious that what He sends is neither unconditional nor unlimited.

Rav Tachlifa the brother of Rabbanai Choza’ah taught: all of a man’s income (for the coming year) is decided between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, except for the expenses associated with Shabbos and Yom Tov and educating one’s sons in Torah. (For these exceptions,) less income will come to one who spends less and more to one who spends more. (Beitza 15b-16a)

Whatever a man will earn in (the coming) year – …is set for him, such and such an amount will he profit this year. And he must be careful not to spend too much, for nothing will be added for his needs beyond what was already set for him. (Rashi)

The fact that the decision is made during the Days of Judgment means that it’s our behavior that determines the outcome. And, while we might not know exactly how much to expect, we can be sure that there is a definite limit.

Even the income added to a person’s “account” to cover what he spends for Shabbos and Yom Tov would seem to be conditional:

Except for the expenses associated with Shabbos – the amount and source of income equal to what a person will spend on Shabbos expenses (לצרכה) is not set (from the beginning of the year). Rather, (additional) income will eventually come to a man to cover his normal Shabbos expenditures. (Rashi, ibid)

Let’s analyze Rashi’s words.

  • First of all, we learn that it’s only Shabbos-like expenses which are “deductible,” but regular spending is not “reimbursed” by God. Frittering away money on unnecessary luxuries can therefore cause serious budget shortfalls by year’s end.
  • Extra income to cover Shabbos expenses is only guaranteed if purchases were made explicitly for “its benefit” (“לצרכה”). That would seem to require some soul-searching: were these new shoes really for Shabbos, or were they for me?
  • Only regular expenses are covered (“according to his normal Shabbos expenditures”). One can apparently not expect to be reimbursed for an uncharacteristically large expense (a trip to a Pesach hotel?) – perhaps because its very unusual nature suggests some other motivation besides Shabbos or Yom Tov’s honor.
  • It would seem to follow that expenses – even those extended purely for the honor of Shabbos – need to fit one’s financial profile. In other words, it’s unreasonable for someone who normally struggles to provide his family’s most basic needs to expect God to cover extravagant Shabbos costs.

Besides the care one must take over the financial decisions concerning ones personal consumption, even generosity towards others must be measured:

Rabbi Ela’ah said: in the (town of) Usha, (the rabbis) decreed that one who distributes charity must not distribute more than one fifth of his wealth…lest he too should (thereby fall into poverty) and need the help of others… (Kesuvos 50a)

The Yerushalmi explains that a person’s first distribution may reach one fifth of his total wealth and subsequent yearly distributions should be limited to one fifth of each year’s profits. (Tosafos)

So the Torah expects us to actively protect ourselves from poverty – even if that means limiting our participation in genuine mitzva and chesed activities.


What does the verse (Nechemiya 8:10) “for the joy of God is your strength” mean? Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Shimon said: God said to Israel: My sons: borrow on My account and sanctify the holiness of the day [i.e., Yom Tov] and trust Me that I will repay for you. (Beitza 16a)

The joy that you undertake for God will be your strength and will empower you to pay the debts and loans you have taken for [Yom Tov]. (Rashi)

[The community fund must provide a poor person with at least four cups of wine for the Passover seder]. Isn’t that obvious? It is really teaching us that even according to Rabbi Akiva who said “make your Shabbos like a weekday rather than accept charity from others” – on Passover, in order to publicize the Exodus miracle, he must accept. It was taught in the academy of Eliyahu that even though Rabbi Akiva said “make your Shabbos like a weekday rather than accept charity from others” one should nevertheless do something small in one’s house for Shabbos. What is (an example of this small thing)? Rav Papa said (purchase) fish brine as it says in the mishna: “Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima says, be as tough as a leopard, light as an eagle, fast as a deer and strong as a lion to perform the will of your Father in heaven”. (Pesachim 112a)

Be as tough as a leopard: be strong in mitzvos; go even beyond your ability. (Rashi)

These two passages would seem, on first glance, to conflict with each other. If someone with limited cash is encouraged to borrow to cover Yom Tov (or Shabbos) expenses and expect God to send the money to cover the loans (as we see from the Gemara in Beitza), why does Rabbi Akiva – and indeed the Gemara in Pesachim according to its conclusion – counsel the poor against all but the most minimal festival supplies?

Here’s how Tosafos resolves the problem:

Borrow on My account and I will repay: that which (Rabbi Akiva in Pesachim) says “make your Shabbos like a weekday rather than accept charity from others” is only referring to someone who has nothing with which to repay the loan (Tosafos Beitza 16a)

The Hagaos Ashri to Beitza explains that someone who can secure a loan against real estate may borrow for Shabbos (and, if necessary, liquidate his real estate to repay). But someone who lacks even the means to secure a loan, and would thus only be able to eventually pay his debts through charity funds, may not borrow…even for the purpose of a mitzva.

So Chazal would seem to advise against incurring debt for general household expenses and certainly for luxuries. And even in the case of those mitzva needs (like Shabbos) for which one may borrow, loans are conditional on the clear ability to repay.1

Besides the built-in financial risks that come with debt, the Torah also teaches us the social costs:

…Because a man would not want to have applied to himself (the words) “A borrower is like a slave to his lender” (Mishlei 22:7). (Bava Basra 51a)

“It is understood that no man would willingly become a loan-slave if he had any alternative…” (Rashbam)

Bitachon and Histadlus

God’s role in our financial lives affects how much effort we decide to make. We’ve got to take it into account. But first, a couple of simple definitions.

Bitachon is the realization that God runs the world and that He can interfere with and control your private affairs any time He wishes. That’s not to say that He necessarily will do so any time you expect and want it, but that He can.

Histadlus is a person’s personal effort.

Finding a balance between the passivity that should result from your bitachon-realization and the need to make an effort is no small achievement. Let’s see what we can learn:

Rabbi Chanina bar Papa taught: the angel in charge of conception…takes the material which the child will grow, presents it before God and says: Master of the universe! What will become of this child; will it be strong or weak, wise or foolish, wealthy or poor…? (Niddah 16b)

All the qualities and events that (effect a person’s life) come to him (from God) as a Royal decree… (Rashi)

This knowledge can relieve a person of the stress of always having more to do. If material success or failure depends on God and your efforts are not what’s directly responsible for your fate, then the importance and urgency of many mundane activities are lessened. You are freed to focus more of your energy and time on spiritual pursuits.

On the other hand, one may not simply ignore his physical needs. In fact, Tosafos to our Gemara provides a perfect example. Contrasting our Gemara with one in Kesuvos (30a) which claims that the only things within human control are the ravages of “cold and heat,” Tosafos proposes the existence of three distinct categories:

  • Things that happen to a person (access to wealth, for instance) and the inborn qualities he’s given lie beyond his control.
  • Similarly, illness and injuries that reasonable precautions could not have prevented (see Tosafos to Kesuvos), also rest “in heaven”.
  • Injury and loss caused by negligence (like heat and cold against which a person can usually protect himself) are within our control and we are responsible for their consequences.

So even though God does watch over and provide for our needs, we are still expected to take appropriate steps to protect our selves and property. Failure to do so could result in loss, injury or even death.

Chazal even felt the need to offer eminently practical solutions for managing our lives:

And Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Shimon: someone who wishes to (strengthen his legal claim) to his property should plant on it an adar tree… [a particularly noticeable species of tree – he will thereby attract public notice to his activities which could later be used to support his rights]. A supporting beraissa was taught: a field with an adar tree will not be stolen or defrauded and its fruits will be protected. (Beitza 15b-16a)

In other words, a person should not rely blindly on God’s intervention, but must take active steps to protect himself.

Even when it might conflict with the genuine needs of others, a man’s financial stability must be taken into account: [when considering how to deal with a lost object you’ve found] Sometimes you may ignore it and sometimes you may not. What is the Beraissa’s case?…If your current employment generates greater income than someone else’s [you may refuse to stop work in order to return the object to its owner]…Isn’t this obvious…from that which Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav…”So that there should not be among you an indigent person” (Devarim 15:4) your needs come before those of others…? [the Gemara accepts Rav’s principle and therefore looks for another justification for the Beraissa] (Bava Metzia 30a)

So that there should not be among you an indigent person – do not bring yourself to poverty. (Rashi)

Significantly, this principle is qualified by the words of a subsequent Gemara in Bava Metzia:

[If one needs to search for] his own lost object or that of his father, his own comes first…How do we know this? Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav “So that there should not be among you an indigent person” (Devarim 15:4) (therefore) your own comes before that of any other person. (However) Rav Yehuda (additionally) said in the name of Rav: anyone who insists on (his right to care for his own needs at the expense of others) will eventually (himself become poor). (Bava Metzia 33a)

Even though the Torah did not absolutely require (that you neglect your own needs for those of others), still, a man should go beyond the letter of the law and not insist “I’m first” unless he would incur a clear loss. And if he always insists on (his rights) he will effectively remove from his shoulders his responsibility for kindness and charity and, in the end, he will (be brought) to public dependence. (Rashi)

It might not always be immediately obvious exactly where the balance lies. One may certainly not think only of himself, but neither may he ignore his own needs and risk financial self-destruction. As in many areas of mature adult life, since these are not simple matters, intelligent thought is required. Even a very great man like the legendary Nakdimon ben Guriyon tragically misjudged his own position:

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was once riding a donkey as he left Jerusalem…he saw a girl collecting barley from among the droppings of Arab-owned animals…She said to (Rabban Yochanan) Rebbi, provide for me! He said to her: My daughter, who are you? She replied: I am the daughter of Nakdimon ben Guriyon. He said to her: My daughter, where did all of your father’s money go? She answered: Rebbi, do they not say this parable in Jerusalem “preserve your money by dimishing it” [i.e., give to charity in order to preserve your money] …(The Gemara asks:) Did Nakdimon ben Guriyon not give charity? Was it not taught about Nakdimon ben Guriyon that when he would leave his house to go to the study hall fine woolen fabric would be spread beneath his feet and poor people would follow behind to take for themselves. Some say that (while he certainly gave charity) it wasn’t as much as he could have. Others say that he did it for his own honor, as people say: “according to the camel, the load” [i.e., a person is judged according to his ability]. (Kesuvos 66b-67a)

1Parenthetically, I think it’s obvious that using a credit card as a convenient way to shop is not really considered a loan at all (for these purposes) – as long as you intend to pay the entire balance by the deadline. Whether balances on unsecured credit accounts which are allowed to go beyond their deadlines would satisfy the Hagaos Ashri is doubtful.

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