In the wake of articles I wrote concerning the mitzvah of giving ‘ma’aser’ (tithe) of one’s income, a pointed question arose: How can it be that although, economically speaking, everyone agrees that today’s standard of living is on a much higher level than previous generations, nevertheless, many people earning a normal salary claim in all honesty that they cannot make ends meet, and are not able to give ‘ma’aser’?
How is it possible that in the times when our forefather’s lived in the Land of Israel, they gave nearly 20% of their produce for the purpose of charity and maintaining Torah students and teachers (Kohanim and Levi’im), in addition to paying taxes to the king, whereas today, when our economic situation is immeasurably better, many people making a decent salary are convinced they cannot give ‘ma’aser’?
Some people claimed that in the past taxes were lower, but with current higher taxes, indeed, it is impossible to give ‘ma’aser’ to charity. However, this argument is baseless because even after all the various taxes, the remaining money enables us to live a much higher standard of living than our ancestors who gave almost 20% of their produce for the purpose of charity and Torah. Once again the question arises: Why are there so many people who cannot make ends meet and feel so financially distressed?
Urban Society and the Industrial Revolution
Perhaps the root of this lies in the Industrial Revolution and the urban society created as a result of it. Until about three hundred years ago, more than 90% of the global population lived in villages and engaged in farming and simple trades; they planted trees, sowed grain, grew vegetables, raised livestock and poultry, built their houses with their own hands, and made their own clothes and tools. They made do with what they had.
As a result of the Industrial Revolution, many farmers moved to cities. The ability to manufacture clothing and tools rapidly eliminated small-time industry. Industrial production increased revenues and markets in the cities were filled with new products. The salaries people earned in the factories enabled them to buy more products than the villagers could. Although the workers became increasingly dependent on their employers, who in hard times cut their wages and treated them as slaves, to the point where many of them became worse-off than those who remained in the villages. Nevertheless, the general feeling was that the real events were taking place in the vibrant and evolving cities, and therefore, better to suffer but benefit from the advancement of the cities, than return to the village which was perceived as retreating to a primitive world. Stories abounded about the villagers who moved to the city and became entrepreneurs, wealthy and important. Every villager who moved to the city hoped that he might also become successful.
Perhaps this can explain what’s occurring on the outskirts of huge cities such as Mexico City and Cairo, for example. Millions of people live in poverty and terrible squalor, but the thought of returning to the village, which guarantees simple existence from the toil of one’s own hands, is inconceivable. People are not willing to give up the dream, the abundance of exciting opportunities and sights that the city offers, or the sense of being part of what’s happening in the city, living among people who are truly influencing the course of life.
Artificial Urban Society
In actuality, an artificial society was created, where the cost of products consumed is totally unrelated to their actual price. For example, real-estate in the city is several times higher than its true cost, because cost is no longer determined according to the value of materials and labor, but by increasing demand. The same is true for clothing and furniture – the price is determined by the prestige people were able to create for their products, rather than the real price, namely, the cost of materials and labor.
In other words, it can be assumed that seeing as prices are determined by supply and demand, most wage earners will always spend all of their salaries for what they perceive as necessary goods (including pension savings), because if they have spare money, the prices of housing, furniture, and clothing will rise, according to their ability to pay. People earning average salaries will live in middle-class neighborhoods and buy basic clothing brands and furniture, while those making high salaries will live in exclusive neighborhoods and buy expensive furniture and clothes. And nearly everyone will feel they have no money to spare.
Urban society also has many virtues. By overcoming some of the limitations of life in nature, an opportunity was created for the development of a lively and creative human society, which can be an exemplary, moral society, with learning and creativity at its center. But as long as the world is still not filled with the knowledge of God, and the values of materialism prevail, most talents are directed in materialistic paths, and consequently, the huge possibilities that the marketplace offers, causes everyone to want to buy more and more.
A society has been created where buying has become its main entertainment. People go shopping regularly, even though they don’t need a thing. Social norms have created a sense that someone who buys, exists; someone who does not buy, is non-existent. Thus, people purchase a lot of useless products. And there are things that people buy because they are sure they cannot live without them, such as cars, even though in truth, one can manage without them.
Similarly, expensive leisure-time activities were created, like going out to cafes and restaurants on a regular basis, and one who gets used to them, feels he can’t do without them. In other words, no longer are human needs determined by the state of hunger and the need for shelter and clothing, but are artificially determined by social norms. Thus, we find many people who feel distress; while actually, their lives are pretty good.
Sense of Poverty in Jewish Law
Indeed, the feeling of personal distress is also significant in Jewish law, as the Torah says: “Open your hand generously, and extend to him any credit he needs to take care of his wants” (Deuteronomy 15:8). Our Sages said: “‘Any credit’ – this refers to a house; ‘he needs’ – this refers to a bed and table… ‘to take care of his wants’ – even a horse to ride on, and a servant to run before him” (Ketubot 67b); all this, of course, for a short period of time until he gets used to living simply.
Likewise, social norms also carry weight in Jewish law. Therefore, since everyone owns a refrigerator today, it is a mitzvah to help a poor person buy one, even though fifty years ago, not every house had a refrigerator, and thus it was not a mitzvah to buy one for a poor person.
Nevertheless, it is clear that authorities in charge of distributing ‘tzedaka’ (charity) should not assist the poor to catch-up with the rich in the race for luxuries. Therefore, as long as the product is not considered a necessity by almost everyone, there is no mitzvah to help a poor person purchase it.
Value of Jewish Law
Two options stand before us: To get sucked along with the flow of the masses into a spiraling whirlpool of shopping and endless expenses, pausing only because of the limit on our bank account. If this is the case, those in charge of distributing ‘tzedaka’ will then also need to assist the poor to run after the ‘human herd’. Needs will continuously increase and there will always be a feeling that the situation is more difficult, because the poor will constantly have to chase after the luxuries that the majority of people already have.
On the other hand, a society can be built based on the value of the mitzvah of ‘ma’aser’ which serves as an anchor, determining that any time a person earns an average salary or even a slightly less, he is still in good shape, and must give ‘ma’aser’. And thus, he will learn to handle the rest of his money wisely, and as a result, merit blessing from Heaven, as our Sages said: “Give a tithe in order to become wealthy” (Shabbat 119a).
Response to Questions
Therefore, when people ask me questions about how they can possibly give ‘ma’aser’ – “because we make only a certain amount of money, and we have so many expenses that, in truth, we can’t give ‘ma’aser'”, I don’t go into details, and my basic answer is a specific one: As long as they are earning an average salary or slightly less, and no special problems exist, they must give ‘ma’aser’. If they find it impossible, it’s a sign they should change something in their lifestyle, because usually the circumstances are that even if they had another 2,000 shekels a month, they would still claim they can’t give ‘ma’aser’. And even if they had 3,000 shekels less a month, they would learn to get by.
For example, over the past year I was asked by a number of families, where both parents work, but the cost of nursery care is expensive and they need to maintain a car to get to work – how can they possibly give ‘ma’aser’? Although I could have offered various suggestions, I preferred not respond, but instead told them it’s their responsibility to arrange their lives in a way that they can give ‘ma’aser’ from their salaries.
One family, who paid 2,400 shekels for each of their two children for nursery care, made a calculation and found that most of the money goes to over-paid salaries. They organized some families, hired a nanny, and now they are paying less than 1,500 shekels a month. One person found a way to travel to work by bus, while another was able to car-pool with friends.
The high costs of tuition for the educational institutions of the National-Religious community, as well, have been shaped by the rules of supply and demand. In contrast, expenses can be formulated around the value of giving ‘ma’aser’, according to which it must be determined as unacceptable that a person who earns an average salary, cannot afford to pay for his children’s education.
The plea is directed both to the administrators of the institutions and public leaders who should ensure reduction in cost of education, and to the parents of students who should be more active concerning this demand, preferring to choose institutions that have built a framework with an inexpensive budget. Indeed, each case must be examined individually, but generally speaking, if the parents take responsibility for educating their children, as the Torah commands, the results will be very good – even in schools with reduced tuition fees.