The Challenge of Wealth
By Dr. Meir Tamari
As part of achieving the holiness of Mankind that is the aim of Judaism, comes the sanctification of time. Our parshah is an indicator of this sanctification as it gives the Jewish courts the jurisdiction over the calendar. When human beings determine the date of birth of the new moon and the length of the year so that they are not something given over to the blind forces of nature, then Mankind achieves a mastery over time and is able to sanctify it. When we are free to determine the uses to which we put our time and allocate it to satisfy our needs, then we are able to make it holy. Therefore, the very first mitzvah we received on being freed from the bondage of Egypt on Pesach was this Kiddush Hachodesh. After all, slaves are not masters of their time.
Our calendar is replete with this sanctification of time. Once every seven days is Shabbat. There are the days of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot that are Moadim, times of memorial and of meeting with G -d. There are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim that are times of Judgement and Atonement, and Purim and Hannukah that are times of redemption. Every seventh year there is the Shmittah, the Sabbatical Year, and after every cycle of seven Shmittot comes Yovel, the Year of the Jubilee. By this sanctification we accept and acknowledge that there is a Creator who controls the forces of nature which He created. He provides for all His creatures, loves and forgives them, but also judges, rewards and punishes them. The special calendar proclaims the special relationship that exists between Israel and that G-d, a relationship shown by the Divine Providence and Divine Law given to them.
However, time is by definition an economic “good”- it is in short supply, has no substitutes, can not be hoarded- so that over and beyond these spiritual truths, its sanctification must find expression in economic and material things. This expression lies in the fact that all of these “holy days” come to limit our creation and our use of wealth. One-seventh of economic activity is kodesh and non-productive. There are further “holy days” on which the market does not function. During the Shmittah and Yovel years we acknowledge that we are not absolute owners of our wealth, only tenants and guardians thereof. The three festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot reiterate this message. On the first day of Hol Hamoed Pesach we start to count the Omer, and before that, we may not eat of the new grain harvest; before, as it were, a rent is paid to the Divine Owner. Shavuot is the festival of the Bikkurim, with its confession by the farmers, that only through the kindness of G-d did the earth give its bounty, not through their luck, ability or labour. This is re-echoed at the national level by the halakhah that the sacrifices could only include the new grain after Shavuot. Sukkot comes at the end of the agricultural year in the Holy Land, a time when people take stock of the year’s activities culminating in the harvests. At this time of self satisfaction and pride in their economic success, the Jews are commanded to leave their permanent homes for the temporary Sukkot; a lesson in humility and trust in Divine Providence. Although couched in terms suitable for a nation of farmers, these are messages meant to be echoed by all the creators and possessors of wealth in all its forms.
There is another major limitation on the amount of time Jews are allowed to spend in economic endeavour and in the spending of wealth. That is, the obligation to study Torah. This is a positive religious injunction that each and every individual, irrespective of their level of knowledge or economic status, or age, or health must fulfil. It is not laid only on the priests, rabbis, or scholars; but pertains to all. Furthermore, there is no special time span or period in a person’s life that is to be set aside for Torah study; rather one is obligated to study day and night from earliest youth to ones dying day. This means that every portion of time not spent in the learning of Torah is considered to be wasteful, bitul zman.
This concept could lead one to understand that devoting time to economic activity of any kind other the serving of G-d might be considered a religious shortcoming; indeed there are religions were this is true. Proponents of this opinion would argue that the necessities of life would be provided by G-d, while the Jew devoted all his time to studying the Divinely revealed Torah. This was the opinion of Shimon bar Yochai, when he came out of the cave where he had been studying Torah because of the Roman edict against it. He said, “There is so little time to devote ones self to Gods words and you are wasting your time ploughing your fields!” In his anger he turned the farmer into a heap of bones. This incident was repeated when he came across another person engaged in farming activities. But a Heavenly voice rebuked him saying, “Bar Yochai, unless you refrain from turning my world into chaos, I will put you back into the cave.” In the ensuing discussion Rabbi Yishmael says that a man has indeed to study Torah, but the Divine plan for the world makes it continually necessary to devote time to providing for ones material needs. The Talmud sums up by saying that many tried to be like Bar Yochai and were unable to emulate him, whereas many followed the path of Rabbi Yishmael and were successful. This majority view is summed up in the Ethics of the Fathers’, “Where there is no flour [material goods], there is no Torah [because poverty prevents one from studying Torah and carrying out the Divine commandments]”.
Nevertheless, despite the legitimacy and necessity of economic activity, all agree that there is a constant and severe limitation on the time spent on wealth creation and by implication, on the consumption that drives this creation.
“One should not aim first at accumulating wealth and then devoting time to the study of Torah. Rather, one should see one’s study as paramount and primary and one’s economic endeavours as marginal and temporary”. This ruling of Maimonidies (Hilkhot Talmud Torah, chapter3, halakhah 7) is sustained by all the Codes, the Tur, Shulchan Arukh and Arukh Hashulchan( Orech Chayim, section 156).
An important application of this basic premise in Judaism of limiting the time devoted to business and allied activities in favour of Torah study is in the area of retirement. There has to be a time when people have to say ‘enough’ to these activities and devote themselves to Torah. Don Yitschak Abarbenel, financier and statesman, writing at the end of the 15th century in Christian Spain summed this up by saying, “Why are the years of our lives seen as 70 years? This is because they parallel the days of Creation. Then there 6 days during which G- d was busy making and creating everything that the world needed but on the 7th day, Shabbat, He rested. So too should we. The first sixty years of our lives we attend to all our material needs and the things needed for us to live. Then in the 70th we have to make Shabbat”.
If this was feasible in his day and time, how much more so in our world that is seeing economic growth and wealth unparalleled in world history?
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.
Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.