The Economy is Good – Thank God!

Grief and Outrage

Rabbi, your last week’s column caused us grief and outrage. You wrote:  “A person who earns a reasonable salary and spends all his money without saving is considered to be a slave controlled by his desires.” Additionally, you wrote that, in your opinion, a person must give ‘ma’aser’ (tithe) if he earns an average, or slightly below average, salary. Rabbi, we are a married couple with four young children; together, we make approximately 11,000 shekels a month. We do not own a car. We live in a Torani (ultra-Orthodox) community in Judea and Samaria, and there is absolutely no way we can save money or buy an apartment. Every month, we spend nearly 4,000 shekels on our children’s education (day care, nanny, kindergarten), and almost 2,000 shekels in rent. Apartment prices in the settlements are extremely high, and it’s very difficult for a young couple to pay a mortgage. We give a limited amount of ‘ma’aser’, because we just don’t have the ability to give more. We manage our household finances prudently. We don’t buy luxury items, but all the same, this is our situation. Today, it is very difficult for young couples to get by financially.


My remarks are based on a number of assumptions: 1) the mitzvoth of the Torah obligated every Jew to relinquish over 20% of his wealth for holy and charitable matters. 2) Our present financial situation is far better than it was during the times of the First and Second Temple’s, and when we were in exile; consequently, a person who earns a reasonable salary – even if it is lower than average – is obligated to give ‘ma’aser’. 3) One of the most important values is freedom, and therefore, a person should be willing to forgo luxuries in an attempt to save money and be a free man.

How Much did a Jew Give in the Past?

For over a thousand years of the Jewish nation’s existence in the Land of Israel, from the conquest of the country in the days of Yehoshua bin Nun until the end of the period after the destruction of the Second Temple, all farmers were obligated, according to the commandments of the Torah, to give about one-fifth of their crops for ‘terumot’ and ‘ma’asrot’; they also left ‘leket’, ‘shichacha’, and ‘pe’ah’ in their fields for the needy (accounting for approximately 4% of the harvest). In addition, in a ‘shmitta’ (Sabbatical) year, they abandoned their fields to all. It should be pointed out that in those days, over 90% of the people made their living from agriculture, thus, nearly all of the Jews gave more than one-third of their harvest for the purpose of a mitzvah (not including the taxes they paid to the king).

Where the Tithes Went

Without going into a detailed calculation, approximately 12% of a person’s harvest went to the Kohanim (Priests) and Levi’im (Levites) who were engaged in learning, instructing, and teaching Torah to all of Israel; an average of nearly 7% went to the poor – that is, an average of six years of work without calculating the Sabbatical year; an average of about 6% went for ‘ma’aser sheni’, which was eaten in Jerusalem in a state of holiness, and by way of it, all of Israel was connected to the Holy Temple and Torah study in Jerusalem. Furthermore, in the Sabbatical year, the fields were abandoned to everyone.

A farmer who grew livestock was also commanded to give more than one-fifth of his yield: he would give the first-born to the Kohen, namely, more than 3% of the offspring of sheep, and about 10% of cows. Also, he set aside ‘ma’aser’ from all the offspring, which were eaten in a state of holiness in Jerusalem. And from all his remaining animals, after slaughtering them, he gave the Kohen the ‘zero’ah’, ‘l’chaim’, and ‘kayva’, (Priestly gifts) which accounted for approximately 8% of the flesh of the animal.

Thus, all of Israel gave, at the very least, one-fifth of their produce for sacred and charitable purposes.

What about Today?

In view of the fact that this is what the Torah commands us regarding agriculture, it is also fitting that a person should give at least ‘ma’aser’ (one-tenth) of his other earnings. This is exactly what the Sages (Sifrei) learned from the verse (Deuteronomy 14:22): “Take a [second] tithe of all the seed crops that come forth in the field each year.” From the wording of this verse, we learn that only seed crops are obligated to be tithed; from where do we learn that profits from interest, merchandise, and all other earnings must be tithed? The Torah therefore says “of all”, for the verse could have said “from your seed crops.” Why is it written “of all” – to teach us that one must also give ‘ma’aser’ from interest, merchandise, and all other earnings.

Today as Opposed to the Past

Generally speaking, our financial situation is far better than previous generations. We live in much larger houses. In the past, houses similar to ours were called ‘palaces’. We have ample running water and toilet facilities. Today, the poorest family eats more than the average urban family ate a hundred years ago. In the past, people’s main sustenance stemmed from bread which they would season lightly with various foods. The amount of meat and dairy products they ate was about a tenth of what we eat today; they ate no more than one-fifth of the fruits and vegetables we eat nowadays – each fruit and vegetable only in its’ season.

In the past, most people had three or four pieces of clothing, one for Shabbat and Yom Tov, and two or three for the weekdays. Some poor people had only one piece of clothing, and the Sages permitted them to wash it on ‘Chol Ha’Moed’. Everything was done manually, without electrical appliances. Heating in winter was scarce; people used clothes and blankets to keep warm. It goes without saying – there were no electric heaters! Dinner was eaten by moonlight or candlelight, and immediately afterwards, people went to sleep until dawn. Torah scholars would remain awake to review their studies.

Therefore, all the talk about “lately the burden of making a living has gotten harder”, or “the ever-increasing financial difficulties strangling us”, or “the growing difficulties young couples face”, are not true at all, and demonstrates ingratitude towards God for all the goodness and abundance surrounding us. Instead of indulging and complaining, we should take an honest look at our good financial situation, and realize that if in previous generations, people meticulously gave ‘ma’aser’ and ‘chomesh’, how much more so are we particularly obligated to give ‘ma’aser’ and ‘chomesh’.

Freedom and the Sabbath

One of the most important human values is freedom. This value is expressed in the mitzvah of Shabbat and the commemoration of the Exodus, as it is written (Deuteronomy 5:12-14): “But Saturday is the Sabbath to God your Lord, so do not do anything that constitutes work. [This includes] you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slave…Your male and female slaves will then be able to rest just as you do. You must remember that you were slaves in Egypt, when God your Lord brought you out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. It is for this reason that God your Lord has commanded you to keep the Sabbath.”

Material needs compel people to work, but they do not force us to be slaves. In actuality, though, most people become slaves to materialism, and the majority of their energies are confined to accumulating money, possessions, and material gratification. By resting from all work on the Sabbath, we express freedom from the yoke of materialism. However, without spiritual values, even a free person reverts to being enslaved to materialism. Therefore, holiness and Torah study should be emphasized on Shabbat, as the Sages said, ‘the Sabbath’s and holidays were given only in order to engage in the words of Torah’ (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 15:3), “For man is never more free than when he occupies himself with the study of Torah” (Avot 6:2).

The Value of Saving Money

How do people become slaves to their jobs? They spend all the money at their disposal, and long to buy more. As a result, they become slaves to their jobs. What can a bank teller do when his superiors require him to promote a supposedly “excellent” savings program for all customers, when in truth, it’s good for the bank, but not for the customers!? If he has savings set aside, he need not fear – he can stay true to his conscience. If he get’s fired, he can use his savings and get by over time, until he finds a better job. But if he depends upon his monthly salary – he is a slave, and will do whatever it takes to get the next paycheck.

What can a person who feels worn-out from hid job do? He knows he’s not benefitting anyone, but he hides his situation because he must continue receiving his monthly salary – which entirely goes to cover his accumulating monthly overdraft. He would like to rejuvenate, study something new, change jobs, but lacks the ability to choose. He has become a slave.

Consequently, someone who wants to be a free person must learn to be frugal, and not spend more than he earns. And by no means to accept the advice of his ‘yetzer’ (inclination) which claims that it is impossible. We should listen to our elders when they speak of their childhood, and realize that one can live frugally; thus, one will be able to appreciate the luxuries he possesses, and also save.

The Responsibility of the Leaders

All the same, one cannot ignore the distress expressed in the question. The truth must be told: our public leadership does not work hard enough in order to lower the costs of construction and education. The public, not demanding this, also shares full responsibility. Houses can be built at the cost of about 4,600 shekels a meter, including development costs, and it is possible to provide high-school education for girls at the cost of 2,000 shekels a year, and for boys, 4,000 shekels (without dormitory). All other things are nice, added extras, and those who so desire should be allowed to pay for them separately. Everyone else should be given the opportunity to receive reasonable housing and education at an affordable price.

Here in the community of Har Bracha, for example, just recently we have started to build and sell high-quality, large apartments – approximately 130 meters – for 600,000 shekels. Those interested are invited to come and purchase an apartment. In the past three years, simpler apartments, measuring approximately 100 meters, were sold for 400,000 shekels, and 70 meter apartments were sold for 300,000 shekels.

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