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The Challenge of Wealth

Parshas Vayechi

By Dr. Meir Tamari

The Patriarch Jacob gathers his 12 sons around him and gives them a blessing that is meant to describe their characters and their futures. In effect he was making an ethical will, something that later throughout Jewish history was done by ordinary people, by famous scholars, communal leaders, and by rabbis and judges. It is particularly enlightening, to see to what extent business behavior and economic activity feature in these historical ethical wills. Behind these wills lies the understanding that earning a livelihood is a major struggle both in economic terms but also morally and ethically. In the midrash Rabbi Yose bar Chalafta taught," Parnasah is more difficult than childbirth; Eve's punishment was to give birth in sorrow but regarding Adam it is written,' in sorrow will you eat all the days of your life' (Genesis, 3: 16-17). Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman said,' Parnasah is greater [spiritually] than redemption. Regarding redemption Jacob said,' the angel who redeemed me (Genesis, 48:16) but regarding our livelihoods we read, (Psalms 145: 16) 'He [G-d] opens His Hand and satisfies all that lives'

Maimonidies [Rambam, 12th Century, Egypt.

"There is no better antidote to the weakness of the heart than the combination of truth and justice [faithfulness and trustworthiness in his language]. On the day when I shall bequeath to you the material heritage bestowed on me by the Creator, I shall transfer to you primarily the quality of trustworthiness by which I acquired these possessions. It was my faithfulness that brought me into places where my ancestors could never have brought me and bestowed upon me an inheritance greater than that of my parents. It invested me with authority over those greater and better than myself, and I prospered and became useful to myself and to others. Be therefore zealous for the welfare of others even beyond the letter of the law; keep your word and do not evade your public or private promises, made either verbally or in writing, either before witnesses or in private. Reject and avoid fraudulent, underhand and unhalakhic practices. Do not take anything, great or small that is not yours. Know that one who accustoms himself to dubious things will inevitably resort to willful activity, just as one who takes a small amount in the beginning or takes something secretly, will eventually take much and in public, until he becomes a liar, robber and embezzler. Be proud of your moral values and be content in your values of truth, for there is no greater nobility and no more glorious inheritance".

Rabbenu Asher [The Rosh, Spain, early 14th Century].

"Beware of oppressing other people, whether by money or by words; neither envy nor hate them. Do not rely upon the broken reed of human support and do not set up gold as your hope, for that is the beginning of idolatry. Rather, distribute your money according to G-d's will; He is able to cover your deficit. Let expenditure of your money be of less value to you that the utterances of your word. Do not set your eyes upon those who are richer than you but rather upon the one who is poorer. Rejoice in your lot whether it is large or small. Every month and every week set aside for charity whatever you can and on every day let there not be lacking a small charitable donation before prayer. When your income reaches a tithe-able amount, set aside the tithe. So you will have something at hand that you could give away either for the living or for the dead, whether to the poor or to the rich [gemach?]. Enjoy neither food nor drink without reciting a blessing before and after. Give praise to Your Creator for satisfying you."

Elazar of Mayence [Mainz, mid 14th century].

"These are the things which my sons and my daughters shall do at my request. They will be in the synagogue every day and there they will pay special regard to the Shemoneh Esrei and to the Shema. As soon as the services are over they shall occupy themselves a little with the Torah, the Psalms or with works of charity. Their business must be conducted honestly in the dealings both with Jew and Gentile. They shall give an exact tithe of all their possessions; they shall never turn away a poor man empty handed but must give him what they can, be it much or little. Should cause for dissension present itself be slow to accept the quarrel. Even if you suffer financial loss thereby forbear and forgive for G-d has many ways of feeding and sustaining His creatures. In trade be true; never grasping at that which belongs to another. For by avoiding these wrongs -scandal falsehood, money grubbing- Mankind will surely find tranquility and affection".

Amatus, The Physician, [Saloniki, mid 16th Century].

"I swear by the Eternal G-d and by His 10 most holy commandments, which were given on Mount Sinai through Moses as lawgiver after the people had been freed from Egypt, that I have never, at any time done anything in my treatments save what in faith was handed down to me; that I have never in these treatments falsified anything, added anything or changed anything for the sake of gain: that I have always sought after this one thing that benefit might spread forth to Mankind; that I have praised no one and censured no one merely to indulge in private passions, unless the zeal for truth demanded this.

Concerning the remuneration which is commonly given to physicians, I have not been anxious for this, but I have treated many, not only zealously but even without pay: and have unselfishly and unswervingly refused several awards offered by many people; and have sought that the sick might, by my care and diligence, recover their lost health, rather than that I might become richer. All men have been considered equal by me of whatever religion they were, whether Hebrews, Christians or Moslems.

I have never brought about sickness; in diagnosis I have always said what I thought to be true. I have never favored vendors of drugs, except perhaps those who I knew surpassed the others by reason of their skill. Nothing base has been committed by me in any house where I was practicing.

The many students, which I have had, I always considered as my sons and have taught them very frankly and have urged them to strive to conduct themselves like good men. I have published my books on medical matters with no design for profit, but I have had regard for only this one thing, namely, that I might in some measure provide for the health of mankind. Whether I have succeeded in this, I leave to the judgment of others."

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 ( in Jerusalem.

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