Jewish Perspectives on Wealth and Poverty
Key Words: Judaism; Property rights; Tithes; Eight Degrees of Charity; Tzedakah; Chamber of Secrets; Charity Boxes; Public Welfare; Regulation of Market Prices; Rent Control.
Money is a Blessing – money is not good or bad – it is what you do with it that matters.
Our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were all wealthy men who are role models for the Jewish people. They knew how to live spiritually with material goods. Conversely, Sodom, the Biblical city of ill repute, was a rich society whose corruption led to its ultimate destruction.
‘When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware less your heart grows proud and you forget the L-rd, Your G-d, who freed you from the Land of Egypt, from slavery and you might say to yourselves,
‘My own power and the might of my hand have won this wealth for me’.
Remember that it is the L-rd, Your G-d who gives you power to get wealth….’
In Judaism, there is nothing wrong or immoral with the possession of wealth and the acquisition of material goods. There is no spiritual value in poverty, nor is it a way to receive spiritual redemption. The drive for economic wealth is morally legitimate and an essential prerequisite for the existence and welfare of the human race.
Judaism rejects the concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Man is not engaged in a struggle for survival against this fellow man. Our sages say 'not only does man sustain, man, but all nature does so. The stars and the planets, and even the angels sustain each other.’
Human life is sacred, so sacred that each person is considered as important as the entire universe. Biblical ethics are permeated with laws assuring the protection of the poor.
The Bible prescribes that when a field is harvested, the corners are to be left uncut; the field is not to be gone over to pick up the produce which has be overlooked. The gleanings of orchards and vineyards are to be left untouched. All these remains are to be left for the poor, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.
Every seventh year was a sabbatical year, during which the land was to lie fallow ‘That the poor of your people may eat.’(Exodus 23:11).
All debts were to be cancelled. Every fiftieth year was a Jubilee year, during which all lands were to be returned to their original owners.
Jewish ethics sanction the institution of private property. However, human rights have priority over property rights. The tithe prescribed in Biblical law was not a voluntary contribution, but an obligation imposed on all so that ,’ the stranger and the fatherless and the widow shall come and eat and be satisfied.’(Deuteronomy 14:29)
Any person who was hungry could help himself to the field produce, without asking permission, so long as he did not carry away food to be sold for his own profit.
No person had absolute control over their own property. The person who cut down young, new trees in their garden was at fault. A person who owned a well in their field had to make the water available to members of the local community. Such requirements evolved out of the fundamental Jewish conviction that material possessions are gifts from G-d, to be use for benefit of all.
‘If there is among you a needy person, you shall surely open your hand and lend him sufficient for what ever he needs’. This verse from Deuteronomy (15: 7-8) became the basis for a highly developed system of loans. Throughout Rabbinic literature, the loan is regarded as the greatest form of charity.
‘Greater is one who lends than ones who gives, and greater still is one who lends and, with the loan, helps the poor person to help himself.’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 63a)
Almost a millennium after this was written, the medieval philosopher Maimonides defined ‘The Eight Degrees of Charity.’According to Maimonides, the highest form of charity is achieved by preventing poverty 'through a gift or a loan; by teaching the person a trade; by putting the person in the way of business so that they can earn their own living.’ (Mishne Torah, ‘Laws of Gifts to the Poor,’ 10: 7-12)
There is no word in the Hebrew vocabulary for ‘charity’ in the modern sense. The word use is tzedakah, which literally means ‘righteousness’. Tzedakah is not an act of condescension by the affluent towards those in need. It is an act of moral obligation and an important Biblical commandment. ‘One who mocks the poor blasphemes one’s Maker’. (Proverbs 17:5).
Our sages taught that Abraham was more righteous than Job. According to Rabbinic tradition, when great suffering befell Job, he attempted to justify himself by saying,
‘Ruler of the world, have I not fed the hungry and clothed the naked?’ (Job 16:22)
G-d agreed that Job had tried to help the poor, but he always waited until they came to him, whereas Abraham when out of his way to search for the helpless. He brought them to his house and also set up inns on the highway. True charity is to ‘run after the poor.’(Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 104a)
Most importantly, the giver must consider the feelings of the recipient. ‘Better no giving at all than the giving that humiliates'.(Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 5a)
‘One who gives charity in secret is even greater than Moses.’(Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 9b) In the Temple in Jerusalem, there was a chamber of secrets, where people could receive help in anonymity. Since that time, charity boxes have been used to similar effect.
In the Talmudic period, the Jewish community organized the first recorded system of public welfare, and by the Middle Ages the community was responsible for all aspects of life. For example, the Jewish community regulated market prices so that the poor could afford basic supplies. Other communities, established ‘ rent control’ for the poorer residents. When poor immigrants arrived from persecuted lands, the community would support them until they were able to look after themselves.
The organization of these charitable institutions became so specialized that numerous societies were established to cover the different functions. For example: visiting the sick, burial, dowries for brides, clothing, maternity needs, ransoming captives and providing necessities for the observance of the Jewish festivals. As early as the eleventh century, a hospital was established by the Jewish community of Cologne for poor and sick travellers.
All these Jewish laws, values and traditions are thriving within the modern Jewish communities of today with a sophisticated system to ensure that both the better or less well off members of society have access to both the spiritual and material.
Tamari Meir (1995) The Challenge of Wealth, Jason Aronson Inc. Northvale New Jersey
Jewish Association for Business Ethics ‘Money and Morals’ A practical approach to teaching business ethics.
Money and Morals Curriculum The first business ethics course in the UK; created by JABE, an educational charity.