Tag Archives: Money

The Economics of Jewish History

In addition to the weekly parasha and Rosh Chodesh reading, this week we also read an extra portion called Parashat Shekalim. In the weeks leading up to Purim and Pesach, there are a number of additional readings to commemorate the key events surrounding those holidays. One of these readings is Shekalim, literally “shekels”, where we recount how the Israelites had each donated a half-shekel in order to conduct a census. The Torah forbids counting souls for several reasons, including the simple fact that people shouldn’t be treated like numbers. So, each adult Israelite male gave a half-shekel (a “substitute for the soul” as the Torah says), the result being the collection of some 300,000 shekels of silver.

Silver half-shekel from the Second Temple era

In the Purim story, we read how Haman promised to pay the king 10,000 kikar of silver to finance the extermination of the Jewish people. One kikar is equivalent to 3000 shekels, meaning Haman amassed 30 million shekels for his final solution. This is an astronomical amount of money, especially back in those days. Where did Haman get it? Rav Ovadia Yosef explained: The Persian and Babylonian businessmen at the time were losing income because the Jewish exiles had come and set up their own superior businesses. The Persians and Babylonians couldn’t compete with the Jews. So, Haman told the businessmen that he can get rid of the Jews for them, and all he needed was a little financial support. They all gladly pitched in for his campaign. This is why the Megillah has Haman saying “I will pay ten thousand kikar of silver al yadei osei hamelakhah [by the hand of those who do business].” (Esther 3:9)

Without those funds, there would be no Purim story! This is one small example of how the shekel—money—drives historical events. We find that, beneath the surface, most of history is a result of economics and business. While so much of Judaism is built upon commemorating the distant past, we seldom think about the financial aspects of those ancient events. Of course, the root reasons for those events are entirely spiritual, yet the way they are brought to actualization is financial. This is hinted to by the Torah’s language itself, where the numerical value of shekel (שקל) is 430, equal to nefesh (נפש), “soul”. It is further alluded to by the Talmud where money is referred to as zuz, literally “move”. Money is the prime “mover” of history. What follows, therefore, is a look at some of the key events of Jewish history—from an economical perspective. Continue reading

How to Define (and Attain) True Success

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, the Torah describes Joseph three times as being matzliach, “successful”. The word appears just four times in the entire Tanakh—and Joseph got three of them! (The fourth was Eliezer, on his mission to find a wife for Isaac.) Joseph was, by far, the most successful Biblical figure. What, exactly, is success? How do we measure if a person is truly “successful” or not? A careful analysis reveals that there are four major markers of success, neatly paralleling the four instances of “success” in the Tanakh.

Health and Wealth

In our modern capitalist society, it is no surprise that the most common marker of success (and sometimes the only marker) is wealth. Society deems a person “successful” if they are materially wealthy. Billionaires are portrayed as the paragons of success, role models for everyone else to aspire to. While wealth is indeed an indicator of success, it is only the first and lowest level. We use it so regularly because it is the easiest to measure and track. It is something we can put a concrete number on: net worth, credit score, investments, bank accounts.

To determine what is a higher marker of success, we need to ask: what is more important than wealth? In other words, what would a person give up all of their wealth for? The first thing that comes to mind is health. A person who is ill will spend whatever they have to get better. Tragically, we probably all know people who were diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening condition and spent countless sums for treatments, sometimes selling nearly all of their assets to do so. The same is not true the other way; a person would never willingly accept a life-threatening cancer in exchange for any sum of money! If this is the case, the health status of a person should be a greater indicator of success than their material wealth.

It reminds me of a story my father-in-law likes to tell: Shortly after they had made aliyah from the USSR, and were still living in relative poverty, the extended family gathered for a barbecue at a park. Some time later, a fancy car pulled up and a gentleman was brought to the park by his chauffeur. The man took a seat on a bench and simply watched my wife’s family. My father-in-law put together a plate of barbecue and plov, and walked over to give it to him (with a little l’chayim, too). The gentleman thanked him, but refused. He told my father-in-law that while he was tremendously wealthy and had more money than he could ever use, he could not enjoy any of it, for he was also tremendously ill. He could not drink or eat anything outside his carefully-constructed diet, and could hardly move on his own. He hoped that it was okay he was watching the family, for this way he might draw a little bit of second-hand joy from them. The man concluded with a message: don’t sacrifice your health in pursuit of wealth!

Love and Success

Continuing on the next level, the same test can be applied: what would a person give up their health for? Certainly, one would (and does) sacrifice their health for their family. In other words, for those that a person loves. While a person would, say, never accept a cancer in exchange for money, most people would probably accept a cancer in exchange for relieving their child of the same cancer. Any parent is ready at an instant to take upon themselves the pain of their young child. This brings to mind another powerful story:

An aunt of mine was diagnosed with a difficult cancer while still in her twenties, and with little children of her own. My grandmother was so distraught that she fell on her knees and prayed to Hashem to spare her daughter-in-law (my aunt), and to transfer the cancer to herself instead. My grandmother passed away within a few months—from cancer. Meanwhile, my aunt’s cancer went away and she lived for another three decades. (As an aside, the night before my grandmother passed away, she made my mother promise to have one more child. That child would be me!)

To summarize, the third marker of success is love, or more broadly, the quantity and quality of a person’s relationships. A millionaire is successful, yes; a person in excellent health and living into a good old age is more successful in the grand scheme; and one that is surrounded by doting loved ones even more so. In fact, we see that attaining a higher measure of success often ensures that a person also has the lower levels. A person in good health is more likely to be wealthier. A person with warm, loving relationships is more likely to be healthier, and also more likely to be financially successful! And this is confirmed scientifically:

In one of the most fascinating studies ever conducted, Harvard University researchers tracked people for over 75 years. Among the conclusions of this well-known “Study of Adult Development” is that the most important marker of overall success and happiness was having loving relationships. The researchers found that those who had good relationships earned, on average, $141,000 more than those that didn’t. (Interestingly, IQ didn’t have much of an effect on having a high income.) They also found that those who had good marriages were healthier and tended to live longer, as did those that had good relationships with their parents.

It seems, then, that there shouldn’t be any higher indicator of success than love. Even the Mishnah apparently echoes this sentiment, stating that “One with whom people are pleased, God is pleased with. But one with whom people are displeased, God is displeased with.” (Avot 3:10) What could be higher than love? Let’s apply the same question once more: what would a person give up their loved ones for?

The Soul

The final and highest level of success can be summarized with one word: soul. A person would not give up their loved ones for money, or health, but many would do so when it comes to preserving their very soul and conscience. Would a person take another’s innocent life to save a loved one’s? Probably not. Would a person commit rape or incest (God forbid) when threatened with their life? Unlikely. Halakhically speaking, they would be forbidden from doing so, for these would fall under the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism. In Jewish law, one must give up his or her life to avoid transgressions under the three broad categories of murder, sexual sin, and idolatry. While these examples are certainly extreme, they serve to illustrate the broader lesson that the soul is the most valuable thing a person possesses. As such, developing the soul to its highest degree would be the greatest measure of success.

Following the same argument as above, a person with spiritual success should also be successful in all the lower levels beneath it. We would expect such a person to also be wealthy, healthy, and surrounded by loving relationships. Indeed, this is what we see in most cases. We find all of our Patriarchs were exceedingly wealthy and lived long, healthy lives. The same is true for most of the Biblical prophets, and the Talmud states a general rule that prophets were all wealthy (Nedarim 38a).

The Talmudic Sages themselves demonstrate this principle well. Rabbi Akiva and Hillel, for example, started out impoverished and spiritually unrefined, but went on to become among the greatest rabbis of all time—and very wealthy and influential, too. There were, of course, Sages that were very poor, but we find that typically they were poor by choice. They wanted to live a simpler, more ascetic lifestyle. The most famous such story is that of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, whose wife was so tired of their poverty that she asked him to pray for wealth (Ta’anit 25a). The Heavens answered with a huge chunk of gold. The rabbanit then had a dream at night where she saw that chunk of gold was given to them from their reward in the Afterlife. She told her husband to give it back!

In short, spiritual refinement is the highest level of success, and includes all the other levels within it. The perfect model for this is Joseph, the man most often described in the Torah as “successful”. Joseph was on the highest level of spirituality, so much so that the Torah tells us “the spirit of God was within him” (Genesis 41:38). He ended up being immensely wealthy and powerful, and we also see he had a loving, monogamous marriage, and good children. His sons were so good, in fact, that until this day we bless our sons every Shabbat evening to be “like Ephraim and like Menashe”! Joseph was the complete package.

If that’s the case, why does the Torah mention him as being “successful” three times, and not four?

Letters of Success

‘Joseph Makes Himself Known to His Brethren’ by Gustav Doré

The one drawback that we find in Joseph is that he died relatively young, at “only” 110 years. From our perspective, this is a long life, but back then it was shorter than any of the Patriarchs. Moreover, our Sages state that Joseph was first of all the sons of Jacob to pass away (even though he was the second-last child, and should have outlived most of them). The reason is that Joseph had a bit of an ego when confronting his brothers. For this he was punished, and his life, though healthy, was cut short (see, for instance, Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 151). This might explain why Joseph is not described as successful all four times.

Finally, we find in the very letters of “success” (מצליח) a way to remember its four categories. The first letter mem represents mammon, “wealth”. The mem literally means “water”, and its shape represents flow. Appropriately, money is described as being “liquid”, having a “currency”, flowing through the economy. In the Talmud, too, money is called zuz, which literally means “move”. The next letter tzadi is read as tzadik, meaning “righteous”. It represents that highest level of success, spiritual refinement. The lamed, the longest letter in the alphabet, represents longevity and health. Finally, our Sages teach that the chet stands for, and is in the shape of, a chuppah, standing for love and marriage. In this way, the letters of matzliach spell out what it means to be successful.

Chag sameach!

What Does God Ask Of You?

In this week’s parasha, Ekev, we read: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God, to walk in all of His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12) Moses instructs his people that they should sincerely love, fear, and serve God. We have written in the past how the Sages say that loving God and serving God is often best done by loving and serving His creations. The Midrash compares this to a servant who takes care of the king’s son. Surely, the king will love such a servant and wish to bestow goodness upon him, for the servant cares for the king’s beloved child. As the Torah calls us all children of Hashem, the King, it goes without saying that those who take care of God’s children are naturally beloved by God.

This is the quality that made Aaron so special, and, according to some, earned him the merit of being chosen the progenitor of the priestly lineage. Pirkei Avot (1:12) famously instructs us to be, above all else, like Aaron (and his disciples): “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all people, and bringing them closer to Torah.” Elsewhere in Avot (3:10), we are told that “One with whom his fellows are pleased with, God is pleased with.” The Kabbalists beautifully point out that the gematria of the command to love God (ואהבת את יי אלהיך) is 907, the same as the command to love your fellow (ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני יי), for one is impossible without the other.

‘Micah Extorting the Israelites to Repentance’, by Gustave Doré

This is what the prophet Michah concluded when he, too, asked the same question as Moses did: “… And what does Hashem request of you? Only to act justly, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Be just and treat everyone fairly; be kind and genuinely love to help others—and do it all humbly and modestly.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) takes a more literal approach, with Rava stating that God will ask each person six specific questions upon their death:

When man is led in for Judgment, he is asked: Did you deal faithfully? Did you fix times for learning? Did you engage in procreation? Did you hope for salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom? Did you understand one thing from another?

The first question implies dealing honestly in business or in financial matters. Judaism has always taught the necessity of being scrupulously honest when it comes to money. The Kabbalists state that a person will be forced to reincarnate into this world if they so much as owe a single penny. They discuss how the value of shekel (שקל) is 430, equal to nefesh (נפש), “soul”, for each person’s material wealth is intricately tied to their spiritual nature. This is why giving money to charity can actually alter a person’s fate, as explained in the past. (See ‘How Charity Can Save Your Life’ in Garments of Light.)

Meanwhile, the Talmud holds that even though the Torah allows Jews to loan with interest to non-Jews, one shouldn’t charge interest from anyone, and a usurer might not even be a kosher witness in court (Sanhedrin 24b-25b). The same is true for someone who owes a lot of money. A person should not get themselves into great debt, and should ensure as much as possible that they will be able to repay a loan. This is why Rabbi Shimon, one of the five great students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, held that the worst possible trait is that of a person who takes on debt and fails to repay (Avot 2:10). He bases himself on the words of King David: “The wicked man borrows and does not repay, but the righteous one is benevolent and gives.” (Psalms 37:21)

The wording of the Talmud is that a person will be asked if they took care of their finances b’emunah, “in faith”. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who seem faithful, but engage in all kinds of financial tricks under the table. A person cannot be of great emunah if, at the same time, they cheat in financial matters, or are even a little bit dishonest with money. This includes gambling, stock market speculation, and all sorts of tax deceptions which have become so commonplace in our time.

Upholding Creation

The second question asked in the afterlife is whether a person set aside regular times to learn Torah. The Sages state that learning Torah is the most important mitzvah. Indeed, without learning Torah a person won’t know the right way to fulfil any mitzvah. The Torah is a “Tree of life for those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18), and the Sages quoted God stating: “I created the evil inclination, and I created the Torah as its antidote.” (Sifre Devarim 45) One who learns Torah is upholding the Covenant between God and Israel—since the Torah is the very text of that Covenant—and hence God states “If not for My covenant day and night, I would not have set the ordinances of Heaven and Earth.” (Jeremiah 33:25) God declares that He would not have created this universe were it not for His Torah—and His people upholding it day and night. (Some have therefore said that the world has time zones so that at any given moment, a Jew somewhere in the world is learning Torah.)

Similarly, the third question refers to procreation, for without it, too, humanity would cease to exist. More specifically, without Jewish procreation, there would be no Jews, and therefore no one to uphold that Covenant. The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated what it takes to fulfil the mitzvah of procreation (Yevamot 62a). According to Hillel, a person must have one boy and one girl, while according to Shammai, a person must have two boys and two girls. The reasoning of the latter is that Eve initially had four children: Cain, Abel, and the sisters each was born with. The first instance of pru u’rvu in the Torah resulted in two boys and two girls, so this is the standard for fulfilling the mitzvah.

However, the Talmud goes on to note another opinion that it was Shammai that taught one must have at least one boy and one girl, whereas Hillel taught that a person must simply have at least one child, whether boy or girl. The most lenient opinion, therefore, is that a person fulfils the mitzvah by having a single child, while the praiseworthy has at least two of each. A person who adopts a child or “raises an orphan” fulfils the mitzvah as well (Megillah 13a).

Of course, it isn’t enough just to have the kids. Parents need to invest their time and energy to ensure the children will be both righteous and successful. The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) reminds us that, among other things, a parent is obligated to teach their child Torah, and also some kind of craft or career to ensure an honest livelihood. After all, “If there is no Torah, there is no flour; if there is no flour, there is no Torah.” (Avot 3:17) To raise children solely with Torah and assume a livelihood will come on its own, or to rely on the charity of others, is a gross sin. The Rambam (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10) is particularly vocal about it:

Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates God’s Name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the World to Come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.

Our Sages declared: “Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an axe to chop with.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise rabbinic positions.” All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, aka. Maimonides, 1135-1204

Although the Rambam makes it clear that Torah study is of absolute importance, and should take precedence over one’s worldly occupation, he nonetheless reminds us that “the greatest sages of Israel were lumberjacks and water-drawers…” (ibid., 1:9) To be fair, there are other rabbinic authorities that allow for full-time Torah scholars who make learning their occupation, but this must only be for a minority of distinguished thinkers. It is certainly not a standard for everyone, for that would be completely unsustainable.

To get back to the third question, the Sages state that having children “hastens the Redemption”. There are a certain number of souls (in a Heavenly repository called “guf”) that must be born, and only when all of these souls have been born can Mashiach come. Thus, having children accelerates the time of Redemption.

This ties into the fourth question a person is asked: did they look forward to the Redemption? The wording is not if they waited for the Redemption, or hoped for it. Instead, whether they looked forward to it, suggesting a more active form. It isn’t enough to passively wait for the Redemption. Each person must do what they can to hasten it. This includes things like doing more acts of kindness and showing ahavat chinam, expressing baseless, non-judgemental love for all fellow Jews (Yoma 9b); engaging in kiruv; and, of course, repenting wholeheartedly (Sanhedrin 97b). Each person has to continue working on themselves to be ever-more righteous. Increasing one’s charitable donations hastens the Redemption, too (Isaiah 1:27 and Bava Batra 10a).

Garment for the Soul

The final two questions deal with one’s knowledge and understanding. It isn’t enough to engage in light learning here and there. A person must be steeped in dialectics (pilpul) and understand the depths of one thing from another (davar mitokh davar). The Arizal taught that a person must learn Torah on all four of its levels; pshat (simple), remez (sub-textual), drash (metaphorical), and sod (secret). These levels are collectively known by the acronym pardes, “orchard”—a word that is also the origin of the English “paradise”. One who doesn’t learn Torah on all four levels has not fulfilled the mitzvah of Torah study and will return in a reincarnation to do so (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, 16).

The Arizal also taught that Torah study not only strengthens a person spiritually, but literally creates a “garment” for the soul to be worn in the World to Come (Sha’ar HaPesukim, Tehillim). This is the meaning of the verse “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, it restores the soul” (Psalms 19:8). Meanwhile, the power of Torah study is so great that it creates angels, and these angels could eventually communicate with the student and bestow Ruach HaKodesh, divine inspiration, upon them (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, 1).

The Talmud specifies that one should spend a third of their time studying Tanakh, then a third studying Mishnah, and a third studying Gemara (Kiddushin 30a). This was at a time when no other texts were available, so one should probably make another “third” for the many other areas of Jewish study we have today, including halachic and midrashic literature, mussar, hashkafa, various responsas and commentaries, as well as Kabbalah. The Arizal divided up his Torah study routine as follows (Sha’ar HaMitzvot, Va’etchanan):

First, he would read the weekly Torah portion. On Sunday, he would focus on the first six verses. On Monday, the next four. On Tuesday, the next five, and on Wednesday the next six. Another five on Thursday, making a total of 26 verses, and then the whole parasha on Friday. This was done in the traditional manner, shnaim mikra v’echad targum—reading each verse twice in Hebrew, and once in Aramaic.

Next, he would study a portion of Nevi’im, the Prophets, followed by Ketuvim, the other Holy Writings that make up the Tanakh. This, too, was done with shnaim mikra and a targum. The Arizal then studied the Mishnah, followed by Gemara, together with the various commentaries. Finally, he engaged in Kabbalah.

Yirat Hashem

Rava derived the six questions above from Isaiah 33:6, where the prophet declares, “And there shall be faith in your times; strength, salvation, wisdom and knowledge…” Faith refers to the first question regarding faithful business, times refers to the second question of setting times for Torah-learning, strength to procreation, salvation to the Redemption, wisdom and knowledge to the last two questions.

The Isaiah verse concludes with “… the fear of Hashem is His treasure.” One’s rewards (treasure) in the afterlife are contingent upon these six questions. Yet, what unifies them all is yirat Hashem, “fear” or “awe” of God.

One who is truly God-fearing will undoubtedly be scrupulously honest with financial matters, and strive to hasten the Redemption. It is doubtful that a Jew can be truly God-fearing without constantly meditating upon Torah and understanding its depths. Thus, complete yirat Hashem encompasses all of these things. Conversely, a person who does not live these ideals is probably not as God-fearing or faithful as they might believe themselves to be.