The understanding, importance and nuances of money have been known to the Jews since earliest times. Though the rabbis of the Talmud correctly stressed that the Jews “do better” spiritually under conditions of poverty than under conditions of extreme affluence, they never promoted poverty as a way of life nor did they disrespect or condemn those who were wealthy, even though those who were extremely wealthy. The Talmud quotes a number of sages as to the duty to respect wealth and the wealthy. The rabbis however did caution that handling wealth is a tricky business and that many a person who was a fine human being when earning a living became an ogre and a tyrant when becoming very wealthy. The rabbis saw the obligation of the wealthy as being the support of the poor, the community and Torah. Those who fulfilled that obligation were deemed to be righteous and to be held in very high esteem. It is not accidental therefore that philanthropy is almost a Jewish vocation and trait. It “saves one from death” and it is one of the pillars upon which all human society rests. In most cases, the divisions in society between the rich and the poor are relative, meaning that today’s poor would qualify as the wealthy perhaps seventy years ago. Nevertheless, the Torah advised us that these divisions would never completely disappear despite our efforts to equitably distribute a society’s wealth amongst all of its citizens. Therefore, the obligations of the wealthy to their society are and will always be present and demanding.
The Talmud was very sophisticated in its understanding of the “economics” of currency. Currency was never viewed as an absolute but rather as a commodity whose value fluctuated relative to other commodities. A study of the fourth and fifth chapters of Baba Metzia in the Babylonian Talmud will reveal to the student the sophistication and understanding of the halacha in dealing with all forms of monetary matters. Gold, silver, money are all treated as having relative value one to another. Because of this, investments – as opposed to straight out interest and usury – are entitled to profits and this became the basis of the famed heter iska that governs Jewish commerce in today’s commercial world. This sophistication led Jews to devise modern banking methods centuries before they became common in the Western world. Checks as commercial instruments of payment were found in the famous Cairo genizah dated in the twelfth century. The Jews were adept at establishing trade outposts all along the “silk route” to China because of their ability to issue and honor letters of credit one to another. A Christian merchant in twelfth-century London was able to remark that “as long as Isaac of York has a cousin, Solomon of Jerusalem, engaged in the same trade as he, European commerce will continue to flourish.” In an age when everything was paid in coinage, trade was always hampered by limited availability, by adulteration of the coins and by the logistical difficulty and danger of having to deal over long distances with this coinage. It was not until paper currency reached Europe from Asia and the ideas of letters of credit and commercial instruments were introduced that a modern mercantile system emerged. Jews were active in these developments and the international banking system pioneered by the Rothschild family served as a model for all later generations of bankers and financial institutions.
To a great extent, it was the grinding poverty of Jewish Eastern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that contributed to the secularization and radicalization of a substantial portion of that society. Since the traditional Jewish world offered no concrete plan to escape that yoke of poverty, child mortality and despair, millions of Jews chose emigration, radical social and political movements and assimilation as their escape routes from poverty. The fact that over a century later we can assess that most of these “solutions” to the Jewish problem were illusory and unreal does not mitigate the fact that poverty without hope is a serious detriment to the continuity and popularity of Jewish tradition and a Torah way of life. In a world of relative affluence, where everything and everyone is increasingly visible to one another, preaching poverty as a permanent way of life is a dangerous strategy. The rabbis likened poverty to death itself. That is why it is so important that our society have a viable, productive and expanding economy. This will produce not only prosperity and physical results; it will also aid in producing a stronger traditional and spiritually oriented society.