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The Challenge of Wealth, Vayikrah [2]

For the past two years, this course has concerned itself with presenting Jewish Business Ethics as they are related to the weekly parshiot, some relevant response and appropriate enactments of the autonomous Jewish communities. However, any ethical system requires an ideological framework otherwise the ethics of that system become irrelevant and impractical for the members of that society. Therefore, in the next few weeks I would like to present the teachings and ideas of our sources with regard to a Jewish ideological and conceptual framework for business and economics.

As the mainsprings of human desires, ambitions and actions have not changed over the centuries these sources have relevance for us, despite the amazing technological changes that have occurred in means of production, information services, financial markets and the very nature of the global village. The same greed, selfishness and the unlimited appetites that mankind has for wealth and power, that called for the ethical, moral and spiritual response of our sources still operate, albeit in different guises, in the societies in which we live, making them essential for us , no less than for our ancestors.


“If G-d will be with me and protect me on this path that I am treading and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear...” (Genesis, 28:20). In his oath, the patriarch Jacob prayed first for protection and only then for economic wealth, expressing the spiritual and religious guidance needed in the search and struggle for wealth and material goods. Without such guidance, in justice, dishonesty, fraud and oppression easily become socially acceptable ways of earning a living and satisfying economic needs and wants. Ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, earning ones daily bread, providing for oneself and ones family an acceptable standard of living and preserving ones wealth as the miracle needed for the salvation of Israel in the splitting of the Red Sea.

A head of a leading multinational corporation once challenged me as to the importance of the commandment ‘You shall not covet... you neighbour’s house nor his ox nor his wife’, now in our days of corporate takeovers. Now, the human drives and motivations that lay behind immorality at the time of the giving of the Ten Commandments could have the same results as those behind the hostile takeovers; “Desire leads to coveting, that leads to theft and [when there is opposition] even to murder ” (Rambam, Hilkhot Gezeilah, chapter 1, halakhah 13). My reply to his question therefore, was an echo of S. R. Hirsch’s comment. “Without G-d’s protection and the framework provided by the Torah, people will give up their very beings to achieve material goals. Then, in pursuit of a livelihood and social status G-d is denied, morality is abandoned, a neighbour’s property, life or honour is unprotected and even the respect for marriage and sexual purity is lost”( Genesis, 6 ;11).

This is a reflection of the power of the yetzer harah , the ability to do evil, for money and for wealth. Indeed, this inclination, both in its power for good and for evil, is more powerful than any other of the lusts or desires that people have. It is a lust that is never satisfied no matter how much it is fed, a desire that is never completely fulfilled. The rabbis tell us, “One has a hundred coins in his possession and yet desires two hundred” (Midrash Kohelet Rabah, 1:34).

Our rabbis tell that when Alexander of Macedonia came to a country in Africa, they thought he had come for gold. They took a pair of scales and in the one pan they placed a skull, and in the other they heaped gold, silver, and jewellery. The skull, nevertheless, still weighed more than all of the treasure, until Alexander put dust in the eye sockets, thus closing them. Now the treasure outweighed the skull. Physical weakness and old age do not blunt this desire as they do all others-only death ends it. There is an ironic symmetry between free market capitalism that teaches that more is always better than less, and socialist ideologies of planned economies wherein all history, international, national, and of the individual, is simply a matter of the ownership of wealth and its distribution. So it is not surprising, that the people who believe that they have enough money or have acquired sufficient wealth are very rare; and rarer still the people who act accordingly. Without the recognition that there is a economic concept of enough, all moral and ethical defences crumble before this yetzer harah.

Torah education, religious status, and even spiritual achievements may blunt, control, or minimize this yetzer harah; but they do not completely eradicate it. This is part of the divinely ordained way of the world; the rabbis once imprisoned the yetzer harah but they could not find even one fertilized egg, so they were forced to release it, knowing that without it there would be no development, not progress, and even no future. Nevertheless, people have to be able to avoid the pernicious effects that wealth and the striving for it so often produce. This applies to all people, even ourselves, and at all stages of our lives. It is noteworthy that even Moses, Samuel, and Samson, all found it necessary to declare that they had not taken the property of others, nor had they exploited their sanctified positions to benefit materially.

It seems that because of the great power of economic lust and its pervasiveness, the Torah surrounded it with more mitzvot [over 100] that it did for example, for kosher food [28 mitzvot] or Shabbat [3 mitzvot], out of the 613 mitzvot that the Torah contains. The Chofetz Chaim found 11 mitzvot related to talebearing, slander and loshen harah. Obviously the disparity in no way reduces the importance or severity of these or other aspects of Judaism; it simply shows that many guardians and much spiritual protection in the form of mitzvot are essential if this most powerful yetzer is to elevated and made holy- holiness being the whole aim of Judaism.

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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