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The Challenge of Wealth, Vol. II

Needs and Wants

At first sight it seems that the basic cause and source of all economic immorality is mankind’s greed. However, closer examination will show that such greed is stimulated and abated by our inability to always be able to discern the difference between wants and needs. Because of the insatiable nature of the economic drive, the time, effort, and the ability invested in satisfying both wants and needs easily become a treadmill from which it is almost impossible to escape. The obsessiveness fueling this treadmill often makes it difficult to distinguish between permitted and permitted acts. It must be remembered that this distinction is a more correct definition of Jewishly correct business behaviour than the more common term business ethics.

Because of the great increase in economic production and the efficiency of modern distribution methods, basic economic needs worldwide can now be satisfied by legal and moral efforts far easier than at any other period in human history. Even the poor and the ‘have-nots’ in modern society have a greater level of satisfaction of their basic material needs, than was the case even 100 years ago. Unfortunately, while needs are relatively few wants are unlimited and can never be satisfied. The consumer society geared to a spiralling need to satisfy such wants, lends itself easily to human greed and to coveting what others have, so that wants are ultimately turned into needs.

Esau’s reply to the patriarch Jacob’s gift was “I have plenty”; this always left him room for wanting more. Jacob, however, could say, “I have everything”. The inability to echo the words of Jacob means that contemporary patterns of spending and the social status expressed in conspicuous consumption are transformed into minimum needs, with constantly increased pressure on our halachic and our spiritual defences against the yetzer harah of unsatisfied wants.

There is a pattern of ‘never enough’ in Isaiah’s lament about the daughters of Zion and there “tinkling ornaments...chains and bracelets...and the bonnets and the headbands and the earrings...and the changeable suits of apparel...and the mantles and the wimples...and the fine linen...and the hoods and the veils” (Isaiah 3:18-23). The prophet Amos, like Isaiah, took great pains to show the connection between these demands and the theft, bloodshed, and oppression that went into the satisfaction of these needs.

“More is better than less” leads people to strive to increase their equity even though they already possess enough to support themselves, their children, and their children’s children. This striving may be motivated by a search for power, communal status, and even philanthropy. However, the unlimited nature of the economic yetzer harah, despite its legitimacy as a method of satisfying needs, all too often becomes the motivation, hidden or acknowledged, behind economic immorality, fraud and oppression.

The words of the Chofetz Chaim [Rabbinic leader, teacher and moralist of Eastern European Jewry before World War 2] clarify the cause and effect of patterns of consumption. “One of the reasons for the sin of theft that people do is the [unjustified] expenditure and the modish clothing which has become, through our manifold sins, commonplace. These cause all the suffering and tragedies that plague us individually and communally, internally and externally. In the beginning the Holy One, blessed be He, provides a person with the wherewithal to support his soul, pay his debts to G-d through charity, gemilat chesed, support of Torah scholarship, and so on. However, soon the yetzer harah entices him to conduct his household affairs, clothing, and so forth in a fashion far above his means, in order that he may achieve social status. Then when his income is insufficient to achieve or to maintain such a standard of living, he succumbs to theft, to robbery, to fraud and to an evasion of debts” (Sefer Tamim, Chapter 5).

The immoral effect of blurring the distinction between needs and wants is multiplied by the ease with which we are able to rationalize our immoral and unethical acts. Our Sages taught that, “Most people are guilty of dishonesty” [as distinct from murder and violence], and Rashi explains that this is because they allow themselves many ways to prevent their fellow men from earning a livelihood from their commerce (Bava Batra 165a). Continuing in the same vein, Shmuel Chaim Luzzatto (18th century moralist) writes that “ In their business dealings most people get a taste for stealing whenever they permit themselves to make an unfair profit at the expense of somebody else, claiming that such profits are not theft . So that it is not merely the obvious and explicit theft that needs to concern us but any unethical transfer of wealth that may occur in ordinary and everyday economic activity” (Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 21).

Unscrupulous business deals, the exploitation of ignorance of consumers or competitors and the use of false, dishonest and suggestive advertising are examples of both Rashi’s and Luzzato’s thinking. The growth of depersonalized economic institutions facilitates our rationalization of unethical business behaviour. This is especially true with regard to our relations with government and public sector bodies and regulators, and the impersonal large corporations, where ‘we’ and ‘they’ easily become opponents or at the best amorphous unknowns that have no ethical claims on us. Exploitation of welfare entitlements, the abuse of subsidies and of government aid to development, and tax evasion, hardly seem like aveirot at all; after all, they are done to ‘them’. Employee pilfering and the use of employers facilities, materials and influence for private purposes are often viewed casually, almost like an employee entitlement; afterall, they are only against the depersonalized corporation.

Our motivation for these acts, is guided and exaggerated by our uncertainty and fear of what the future will bring. If we knew what the markets would do tomorrow, what the physical and material conditions of our families and ourselves would be and how stable the political conditions are, then we could all be secure and therefore behave ethically in our economic lives. However, the uncertainty that surrounds us, leads us to make great endeavours to provide for ourselves and ourselves against whatever the future holds. Some of the means are perfectly legitimate, like savings, insurance and investments. In addition, because of our fear of uncertainty, we also cut corners and seek immoral was to ensure our security. Our fathers in the desert did exactly that. When told that the Manna would fall 6 days of the week and be sufficient for every body’s needs, they wondered perhaps Moshe erred or something would go wrong, and therefore in their uncertainty they transgressed G-d’s word. They collected more than 1 days needs; security demanded that they provide for tomorrow, despite G-d’s promise (S.R.Hirsch, Exodus, 16:20-21). Aruch Hashulchan defines dealing in the market place in faith, be’emunah, not only as in honesty, but rather in the faith that G-d provides, so one does not need to do immoral acts in order to provide for the future.

We should bear in mind that halakhically, the definition of theft is where we obtain anything not belonging to us without the real owners knowledge or consent. Furthermore, there is complete equality of the sexes with regard to their obligations regarding moral and ethical monetary matters; there are no halakhot in this area from which women are exempt. In addition, both Maimonides and the Ramban agree that the 7 Noachide laws include all the mitzvot of dinei mammonot obligatory on the Jew.

In oder ,therefore to keep away from the aveirot that are the everpresent rish of wealth, business and consumption one needs a lifestyle and philosophy of enough, irrespective of how that is defined, and that present day social values and moeres notwithstanding, we are not only economic beings; We need an aware ness of the wide all pervasive and all inclusive obligatory halakhic framework within which we are obligated to operate.

Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari and

Rabbi Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.



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