Is Poverty the Ideal?
Chapter 5, Law 10
"The Torah scholar provides for his needs justly. He eats, drinks, and
supports his household according to his means and prosperity. He should
not burden himself [financially] unduly.
"The Sages commanded that the appropriate way (lit., 'in the ways of the
land') is that a person should not eat meat except when he really desires
it (lit., 'only according to his desire'), as the verse states, '...[and
you will say, 'I will eat meat'] for your soul desires to eat meat...'
(Deut. 12:20). It is sufficient for a healthy person to eat [meat] every
Sabbath eve (lit., 'from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve'). And if he is
wealthy enough to eat meat every day, he may do so.
"The Sages instructed that a person should always eat poorer than
appropriate for him according to his means, he should wear that which is
appropriate for him, and he should honor his wife and kids more than
appropriate for him."
The Rambam is continuing to discuss the behavior appropriate for the Torah
scholar, this week focusing on how he maintains his living standards.
For the most part, the Rambam's words are quite rational and
understandable this week, requiring little further elucidation. The
scholar should basically live according to his financial abilities, not
veering far to either side, whether beyond or below his means.
The first half of the Rambam's advice -- that we not attempt to live
beyond our means -- we can all readily appreciate. We must recognize and
be realistic about our money situation, making sure to live within our
means. We must avoid the social pressures exerted by our surroundings --
looking over our shoulders at the clothes the neighbors are wearing, the
vacations they're going on, the weddings they're making, etc. Something we
all know intellectually, if difficult to live in practice.
The second half of the Rambam's point I find a bit more eye-opening. We
*should* (more or less) live up to our standards. If a person is of
comfortable means, there is no great reason to deny it and live like a
hermit. If G-d has blessed you with a little more, why not appreciate the
blessing and live better? The meaning of course is not to flaunt one's
wealth or to use it solely for one's own selfish purposes. But neither
does the Torah ask us to give everything away beyond the bare minimum.
Rather, as with all blessings, we may enjoy what the L-rd has bequeathed
us, making sure to recognize and appreciate the G-d who has granted it --
as well as being generous with it in the manner G-d certainly wishes.
There seems to be a common misconception among many religions, Judaism
included, that truly holy people are dirt poor, or that poverty is the
only truly ideal way to live. What could be "holier" than living with
want, the cold weather seeping in to an unheated apartment through broken
shutters, putting the kids to bed hungry every night? How could one show
greater devotion and dedication? Perhaps we also idealize the abject
poverty of our great-grandparents in Europe. Somehow, we imagine, when
life was desperate, everyone was pious, humble, long-suffering, stoic, and
generous to a fault with the little they had.
Well, apart from the historical revisionism in such an appraisal, the
Sages are far less sentimental about want, stating rather dryly, "A poor
man is considered dead" (Talmud Nedarim 64b). And the idea is not simply
because such a person is deprived and hungry. Living from hand to mouth,
constantly worrying about the next meal and the next bill drains a person.
It saps him of his vitality. All of his energy is spent on worry and
aggravation. "The days of our years among them are 70 years, and if with
strength 80 years, and their proudest deeds are but toil and pain" (Psalms
90:10). And such toil and pain takes a mighty heavy toll on one's peace of
mind, his relationships, and his health.
To be fair, the Talmud in one place writes that G-d searched through all
the good qualities (Heb., "middos") to give Israel and found nothing
better than poverty (Chagigah 9b). The risks of laxity and assimilation
are far greater the more pampered our lifestyles and wider our
opportunities. And so too, there is certainly room for some denial, of
living more simply than one's standards -- not unlike how pious Jews
occasionally deny themselves certain comforts and pleasures to keep their
baser drives in check (as we've discussed in the past). Yet for the most
part, Judaism does not view want and deprivation as an ideal. There is
nothing evil about enjoying and appreciating the blessings G-d has granted
More generally, Judaism has always had a practical side to it, viewing the
pursuit of wealth (within reasonable limits) as entirely consistent with
the Torah lifestyle. There is no inherent contradiction between
spirituality and making money, even a lot of it, if G-d so grants you --
though of course, as with most worldly activities, risks undeniably exist.
Although as we will discuss G-d willing in future weeks there are higher
tracks -- and room for people to transcend the curse of man "with the
sweat of your brow you will eat bread" (Genesis 3:19), most of us can and
must earn our keep. And if we're honest and prudent about it, G-d will
determine to what extent our efforts are blessed. (See Talmud Niddah 16b
that whether a person will be rich or poor is determined prior to his
birth. It depends on Divine providence -- solely -- and not at all on
man's abilities. Many real-life examples of this certainly come to
mind...) And if and when the blessings come, we are asked to appreciate
what we've been granted and be ever aware of the One who granted them to
The final issue I'd like to discuss is the Rambam's final point -- his
division of living standards into three categories (based on Talmud
Chullin 84b). One should eat less well than he can afford, dress according
to his means, and care for his wife and kids more than he can afford.
This division is readily understandable. For our own pleasure, we should
skimp just a bit. There is no reason to indulge our stomachs (or any of
our fancies) to every extent we can afford. Our dress however, should be
according to our means. As the Talmud commentator Rashi writes, we should
not shame ourselves by dressing shabbily -- or by doing anything which may
lower our standing in the community.
Finally, we must care for our family members even better, at times (and in
practice most of the time) exceeding our financial abilities. As the
Talmud there continues, "for they are dependent on him, while he is
dependent on the One who spoke and the world came to being." For oneself,
it is proper to do with a bit less, and certainly to stay within his
means. And if he must at times make do without, he need not fear, for he
may trust that the L-rd in heaven will provide him with his needs. But he
has no right to impose such faith upon his family. They look to him for
support, and he must care for their needs. He cannot just tell them to
keep the faith and turn to G-d. Faith is a wonderful quality if you attain
it yourself, but if you're not there, no one can impose it from without.
Even further, if a breadwinner feels spiritually able to work a little
less and do without, it is wonderful for him, but he must take his family
members into careful consideration. We can never impose our own high level
on others. And even more significantly, we will do our children a terrible
disservice if our lifestyle conveys to them that the spiritual life is one
of deprivation. We may be comfortable ourselves with self-sacrifice and
denial, but our wives and children will not appreciate having it foisted
upon them. And the most likely result is that our children, when the come
of age, will rebel against the way of life they viewed as an unwanted
imposition. Tragically -- but not surprisingly -- great sacrifice on the
part of the parents often does little more than assure their own children
will not follow in their ways.
Thus, the Rambam this week offers us several wise words of advice in how
we must maintain our living standards. And I found his words this week
refreshingly natural and agreeable. We need not (and should not) maintain
standards much higher or lower than our means. And in allotting our
resources, precedence is given to our dependents, at the expense of our
own pleasures. And by so doing, we can be ourselves, whatever our station
in life, being ever thankful to the One who allotted us the blessings we
(A small part of the above based on thoughts heard from R. Berel Wein.)
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org