What does God want us to do with our wealth? Obviously most of the answer to that question can be found in Shulchan Aruch. However, in this chapter we’ll focus mostly on non-halachic ideas.
Just why should the Torah concern itself with non-halachic behavior? Perhaps it’s obvious, but here’s my approach: God, through His Torah, seeks elevate Jewish life over such a broad and complex range of activity that there isn’t always enough common ground on which the force of law can be imposed.1 Torah sources therefore provide finely nuanced models for each of us to intelligently apply to our own specific situations.
These models are often collectively referred to as Derech Eretz. And this is the subject of our chapter.
Consumption with Restraint
Here is an excellent illustration. Commenting on the words (Vayikra 19:2) “Be holy, for I, your Lord, am holy”, The Ramban famously wrote:
…For while the Torah explicitly prohibited sexual immorality and forbidden foods, it also permitted a woman to her husband and the eating of meat and wine. As a consequence, an undisciplined person could feel free…to immerse himself in drink or ravenously consume meat since, after all, there is no explicit Torah prohibition. But in that way, he will become disgusting under the Torah’s authority (נבל ברשות התורה).
Therefore, according to the Ramban, the Torah added this special mitzva requiring us to apply the principles of various prohibitions even beyond their literal borders. This mitzva aims to imbue daily Jewish life with a general culture of restraint.2
Here’s a practical example:
The rabbis taught, “When the Lord your God shall widen your borders as He promised and you will say, I will eat meat – for your soul desires to eat meat. According to all your desire may you eat meat.” (Devarim 12:20) With this, the Torah taught the derech eretz principle that a man should not eat meat unless he is hungry. You might think that a man may even purchase meat from the market and eat, the verse says “and you will slaughter from your herd and from your flock” (ibid verse 21). You might think that a man may even slaughter his entire herd and eat; his entire flock and eat, the verse says “from your herd” and not all your herd… (Chulin 84a)
Remember, this Gemara is not discussing halacha. It’s about attitude. Now let’s examine it one idea at a time:
- “A man should not eat meat unless he is hungry” – this addresses problems faced by many dieters: eating can serve many purposes besides simply providing the energy needed for proper bodily function. We also eat out of boredom, in order to fill emotional holes and to advertise our wealth and “good taste”. Eliminate the extra food and the nation’s body mass indexes will plummet. But beyond concerns for our health, purely social consumption (in all its many forms) is a symptom of a much larger set of problems. It opens the door to lives entirely dominated by excess and ever-increasing expectations. This Gemara advises us to limit our eating to the service of our more practical needs.
- “You might think that a man may even purchase meat from the market and eat” – now, there is clearly nothing illegal or immoral in buying your meat from a butcher. Perhaps the philosophical problem lies in the fact that buying meat is just so much easier than slaughtering your own. When meat is immediately available in convenient pre-packaged portions (as opposed to lying beneath the skin of the cow who has been living out back these past few years), one can lose sight of the real costs.3 Unaware of the costs, a person may consume more of it than is appropriate for his social and financial position. But restricted to his own herd (or, at least, aware of the Torah’s preference for such a restriction), a person will be forced to maintain a balanced perspective.
- “You might think that a man may even slaughter his entire herd and eat” – in other words, according to Rashi, if he has only one cow, a man should avoid slaughtering it for food. Why? Perhaps because focusing this much on your immediate needs shifts the balance too far from stable, long-term planning.
And here’s another example from the same Gemara:
The rabbis taught: It says (Vayikra 17:13) “(a man) who will trap” – I would only know that (a Jew may only eat meat that he personally) trapped; how would I know that (it is also permitted to eat) pre-trapped meat like geese and chickens? (That verse also says:) “…game” (teaching us that eating an animal is permitted not matter how it was trapped). If so, why does the Torah (seemingly unnecessarily) say “who will trap”? The Torah taught derech eretz, that a man should (ideally) not eat meat without personal involvement in its preparation.
As though he trapped (the animal himself) and (as though) it wasn’t pre-trapped for him, as if to say a man should not eat meat regularly so he shouldn’t become poor. (Rashi)
In other words, when deciding whether or not to purchase meat, a person should imagine himself actually going through the inconvenience and trouble of capturing it. This mental exercise, according to Rashi, will inspire a more sober consideration of the financial consequences of the purchase, eliminating at least some dangerous extravagance.
Alongside the general benefits of restraint, ensuring that your spending doesn’t outstrip your wealth simply makes sense. But besides that, consuming only the products of your own independent labor is also part of a more pleasant way to live:
Rav Kahana said: “a man would prefer a single measure of his own property over nine measures of someone else’s.”4 (Bava Metziya 38a)
So great is the desire for financial independence among normal, self-respecting human beings, that the Torah portrays us as willing to suffer deeply rather than lose it. Here are the “words” of a dove:
And the dove came (back) to Noach towards evening and there was the leaf of an olive tree grasped (טרף) in its mouth… (Braishis 8:11)
Midrash Aggada: Taraf (could also be understood) to mean “food” (i.e., teref). And, therefore, “in its mouth” means a statement. (It is as though the dove) said: “let my sustenance be as bitter as an olive as long as it comes directly from God’s hand, rather than sweet as honey (but) from the hands of flesh and blood.” (Rashi)
That would seem to be the natural – or at least the ideal – state of human nature. However, that good nature is easily corrupted:
“Jealousy, desire and (pursuit of) honor remove a man from the world.” (Avos 4:28)
“The more property, the more worries.” (Avos 1:7)
…And allowing excessive materialism to corrupt our good nature can lead to some particularly unpleasant consequences:
Rabba bar bar Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Yehuda ben Rabbi Iloy: “Eat onion (בצל) and dwell in the shade (בצל – i.e., playing on the similarity of these two words, the Gemara notes how consuming affordable foods will allow you to live a pleasant and sheltered life) and do not eat geese and chickens only to have your heart chase you (i.e., the discomfort caused by your ever-expanding habits – Rashi). Limit your food and drink and (therefore) add to your home.
When Ulah arrived (from Israel), he said: “In the West they used this analogy: one who would eat the fat under a sheep’s tail (אליתא – expensive meat bought on credit5) will (as a result, be forced to) hide in the attic (עליתא – to escape his creditors). But one who eats field vegetables (קקולי) will (be able to) sleep in the open.” (Pesachim 114a)
…But at least we can be clear about how things should work.
It is the destabilizing effects of social pressure and a fragile sense of self that can sometimes push us to consume at a level beyond our needs and resources. The rabbis therefore advised us to consider our individual circumstances in setting our material standards:
Rabbi Elazer ben Azariah said: One who has a manah (a particular coin), should buy a litra (a volume measure) of vegetables for cooking (as a side dish for his main meal). (One who has) ten manah should buy a litra of fish. (One who has) fifty manah should buy a litra of meat. (One who has) one hundred manah may fill his pot (with meat) every day. And the others (i.e., those who are to limit themselves to fish or a lesser amount of meat), when (if not every day) should they eat their (side dishes)? On Friday nights. (Chulin 84a)
Finally, educate your children to follow this sensible path, as it will help them to avoid some very painful experiences:
Mar Zutra the son of Rav Nachman quoted (Mishlei 27:27): “Give life for your girls” – from here the Torah teaches derech eretz that a man should not accustom his child to meat and wine. (Chulin 84a)
Give life for your girls – teach your household a way of life (in which they will learn to) make do with light foods.” (Rashi)
Consumption with Torah
Developing a mature attitude towards consumption will permit a person to more intelligently balance competing elements of his life. He will ensure that his wealth (or its pursuit) must not dilute his focus on Torah:
The rabbis taught: the poor person, the rich person and the lawless person will all be brought to justice (in the next world). To the poor person they will say: ‘Why did you not engage in Torah study? If he answers ‘I was poor and distracted by the search for my sustenance,’ they will say to him: ‘Were you more poor than Hillel…?’ To the rich person they will say: ‘Why did you not engage in Torah study?’ If he answers ‘I was rich and distracted by my property,’ they will say to him: ‘Were you more wealthy than Rabbi Elazer ben Charsom…? To the lawless person they will say: ‘Why did you not engage in Torah study?’ If he answers: ‘I was distracted by my evil habits,’ they will answer: ‘were you more beautiful than Yosef…? We therefore find that Hillel compels the poor, Rabbi Elazer ben Charsom compels the rich and Yosef compels the lawless. (Yoma 35b)
A ben Torah knows that allowing wealth to become an obsession, can completely undermine his entire relationship with spiritual existence:
At the time of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s death, he raised his ten fingers upwards and said: “Master of the universe! It is revealed and known before You that with my ten fingers I toiled in Torah and I did not take personal benefit for even my small finger…” (Kesuvos 104a)
I did not take personal benefit for even my small finger – as we say in the midrash: “Before a man prays that Torah should enter his body, pray that pleasures should NOT enter his body…” (Tosafos)
And he knows that, while wealth is certainly not an intrinsically bad thing, moderation is critical for anyone with even the most modest ambitions in Torah study:
This is the Torah way: eat bread with salt and drink water in fine measure and sleep on the ground and live a difficult life… (Avos 6:4)
The Torah is acquired through these forty-eight things…limit pleasure. (Avos 6:6)
Finally, by studying the principles of both halacha and derech eretz, one can learn to avoid waste by carefully weighing the conflicting demands on his resources one against the other:
It happened that Rabbi Chama bar Chanina and Rabbi Hoshaya Rabba were strolling in the bais kneses of Lod. Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said to Rabbi Hoshaya: “how much money did my fathers sink in this place!” (Rabbi Hoshaya) replied: “how many lives did your fathers sink in this place – were there no people to learn Torah (who could have been supported by that money)?” (Shekalim – end of the fifth perek)
Consumption with Balance
While restraint and careful management of our wealth are indeed crucial, that’s certainly not the whole story. We, being human, were created with both the capacity and the need for pleasure. In the correct context, simple enjoyment is irreplaceable.
Rav Chisda said: “Someone who could make do with barley bread but instead eats (more expensive) wheat bread has been needlessly wasteful.”6 And Rav Papa said: “Someone who could make do with mead but instead drinks (more expensive) wine has been needlessly wasteful.” But this is not so: avoiding needless waste (i.e., through neglecting one’s body’s legitimate needs) comes first.” (Shabbos 140b)
Even some of the above-mentioned budgetary considerations are conditional. You will remember how Rabbi Elazer ben Azariah advised that:
One who has a manah (a particular coin), should buy a litra (a volume measure) of vegetables for cooking (as opposed to anything more expensive like fish or meat)… (Chulin 84a)
Nevertheless, this particular restraint is not necessarily appropriate in every case:
Rav said: “We must heed the words of this elder.” (However,) Rabbi Yochanan said: “Our master (i.e., Rav) came from a healthy family, however, for people like us, one who finds a penny in his purse should run to the store (to buy whatever rich foods he needs).” Rabbi Nachman said: ‘For people like us (who are even weaker than those Rabbi Yochanan had in mind, even) borrow to eat (richer foods).” (ibid)
Do not inflict on yourself suffering and thereby require public support. (Rashi)
In other words, restraint, for all its benefits, should not compromise a person’s health and well-being. Nor, obviously, that of his family. It is crucial that we not selfishly impose our own frugality on those who depend on us:
Rav Avira taught, sometimes in the name of Rabbi Ami and sometimes in the name of Rabbi Asi: Why is it written (Tehilim 112:5) “Good is the man who is kind and lends; his words proceed with judgment”? (This teaches) that a person should always eat and drink less than he can afford, dress according to what he can afford and honor his wife and children with more than he can afford, for they depend on him while he depends on the One Who said: “Let the world exist.” (Chulin 84b)
And there are times when enjoyment is encouraged even on its own terms:
“Shmuel said to Rav Yehuda: ‘If you would be wise, grab and eat; grab and drink, for this world, which is constantly slipping away, is like a wedding feast.'” (Eruvin 54a)
1See the Ohr Someach at the beginning of רמב”ם הלכות תלמוד תורה
2There are, according to the Ramban, other examples of such general guidelines. See Ramban’s subsequent words relating to Devarim 6:18 on extending the moral reach of the Torah’s social laws.
3Whether because smaller purchases seem to place less of a drain on your assets and income or because you no longer associate what you are eating with the effort and expense of raising the cow.
4The Gemara does actually consider the specific 1:9 ratio to be an exaggeration.
6Or, more accurately, “has transgressed the prohibition of ‘do not destroy'” (Devarim 20:19)