Living the Good Life by Torah Standards

    June 2011          
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Voluntary Simplicity and the Torah Life

By Heshy Friedman

David Brooks, in a New York Times OP-ED piece, observed that historians, in explaining the rise and fall of many great empires, feel that “Wealth and power lead to affluence and luxury. Affluence and luxury lead to decadence, corruption and decline.” All over the world, the global crisis which has impoverished millions of people throughout the world is being seen as payback for voracious greed, hyper-materialism, and/or capitalism without values.

It is clear that the economic path we are currently on, which has consumers obsessed with hyper-materialism and over-consumption, is leading us to destruction. It is not sustainable and is destroying the environment as well as the true values that result in a healthy and happy society. After the financial meltdown of 2008, it is becoming very obvious that we need a new economics, one that is moral and considers more than profit and growth. The world also needs a strong America to act as a stabilizing influence; the United States cannot be strong if it continues to take on more and more debt and wastes scarce resources.

Consider the fact that developed countries (US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia) with a total population of about 1 billion consume 32 times more resources such as oil and plastic than do those in developing countries with a population of 5.5 billion. Approximately 1.4 billion people live below the extreme poverty line of $1.25 per day. These people are hungry for much of the year and are also malnourished. The life expectancy of people living in the wealthier nations is 78 years; it is below 50 years in the poorer nations. Five percent of children living in these poor countries die before the age of 5; that is 27,000 children dying every single day because of poverty. In India today, 43 per cent of children younger than 5 years of age are malnourished and underweight

If the entire world were to consume as much as the developed countries do, this would be the same as if the world population increased to 72 billion. No one believes that the world can support this many people.

The Torah is replete with precepts that deal with business ethics and has had a profound effect on a countless number of people. It is interesting to see how the Torah looks at materialism. There is no doubt that the Torah would not support the view that greed is good, despite being very much in favor of productive work.

The attitude of the Torah towards wealth is quite positive. One does not have to be an ascetic and disdain owning property. The ideal system is not one in which every individual has exactly the same amount of property; the Torah recognizes that there will be poor as well as wealthy individuals. What matters is how the wealth is used and whether or not one is grateful to God for it. Wealth, peace, and/or long life should be seen as rewards from God for obeying His laws (Leviticus 26:3-13; Deuteronomy 11:13-16; Deuteronomy 25:15; Proverbs 22:4). People, however, have an obligation to use their wealth to help those that are needy. The Psalmist declares (Psalms 82:3): “do justice to the needy and the orphan; deal righteously with the poor and the impoverished; rescue the needy and the destitute and save them from the hand of the wicked.” Isaiah (1:17) also makes this very same point: “learn to do good; seek justice, aid the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

The obligation to take care of the orphan, widow, the destitute, and the stranger (one is even obligated to love the stranger) is mentioned numerous times and is a core value of the Torah. Destitute individuals will not have the ability to help the unfortunates of society.

The acquisition of wealth through hard work is permitted and encouraged by the Torah; greed and materialism are serious problems. The tenth commandment in Exodus (20:14) states: “You shall not covet your fellow’s house. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything else that belongs to your fellow.” In Deuteronomy (5:18), the wording is slightly different: “And you shall not covet your fellow’s wife, you shall not desire your fellow’s house, his field, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything else that belongs to your fellow.” Maimonides (Laws of Stealing 1:9-12) notes the difference in the wording and concludes that “desire leads to coveting and coveting leads to robbery.” Clearly, greed is not good and leads to bigger problems. After the financial meltdown which nearly caused another great depression, many of us would agree with Maimonides.

Materialism is discouraged by the Torah since it can lead one to become arrogant. In fact, the Torah (Deuteronomy 8: 11-18) describes one of its dangers. A successful individual might believe that “my power and the might of my hand has made me all this wealth.” Also, “Jeshurun [Israel] became fat and kicked … And he forsook God who made him.” (Deuteronomy 32: 15). The rebellious son described in the Torah (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21) -- who has become a threat to family and society -- is accused by his parents of being a “glutton and a drunkard.” Overindulgence in the pleasures of the world has contributed to his downfall.

Agur asks the Lord not to make him poor or rich. Poverty might make him become dishonest but wealth can cause him to deny God (Proverbs 30: 7-9). Even the king was not permitted to possess too much gold and silver (Deuteronomy 17: 17). It is quite obvious what happens to both a king and country when there is an obsession on acquiring gold rather than on justice and prosperity for all. The prophet Jeremiah (9:22-23) observed that: “Let not the mighty man glory in his might; Let not the rich man glory in his riches.” What matters to the prophet is “lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth.

One king who was punished for flaunting his wealth was King Hezekiah. He flaunted the great wealth in his treasuries to Merodakh-Baladan, son of Baladan, the King of Babylonia. Isaiah said to Hezekiah (Isaiah 39:6): “Behold, a time is coming when everything in your palace and what your forefathers have accumulated to this day will be carried off to Babylonia; nothing shall remain, says the Lord.” Hezekiah’s sin was in taking too much pride in his worldly possessions and showing them off.

Job described the way a person with means is supposed to live his/her life. Job was a person who treated all with dignity, even his servants (Job 31: 13); Job took care of the poor, the needy, the orphan and the widow (Job 31: 16-21). Job was not materialistic and he declares that he never “made gold my hope” or “rejoiced because my wealth was great” (Job 31: 24-25).

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Maakot 24a) states that the prophet Micah (6:8) reduced the Torah to three major principles: “What does the Lord require of you: only to do justice, to love acts of kindness, and to walk discreetly before your God.” The Talmud says that ‘walking discreetly’ before God refers to funerals and weddings; “If in matters that are generally not done in private the Torah says that one should ‘walk discreetly,’ how much more so in matters that usually call for modesty should certainly be done so.” The Talmudic sages felt that one should live a life of moderation and not be ostentatious, even when making funerals and weddings.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 84a) also states: “A parent should not accustom his children to eat meat and wine.” It was felt that a luxurious lifestyle could lead one to a life of dishonesty. A similar idea can be seen from the verse (Exodus 16:8): “When the Lord shall give you in the evening meat to eat, and in the morning bread to fill you up.” The Israelites were promised bread (manna), not meat, to fill you up. Rashi, a major medieval commentary, notes that the Torah teaches one to sate himself with simple foods such as bread and eat luxuries such as meat only occasionally. During the forty years of wandering the wilderness, the Israelites had to be satisfied with manna. They were not permitted to hoard it (it would only last for a day); each person was supposed to gather only one omer (Exodus 16). The Israelites were punished severely for grumbling about the manna and demanding meat: “Would that we were given meat to eat!” (Numbers 11). God did send forth a wind to bring the people a huge number of quails from the sea but it did not end well for the people. The place where this incident occurred and resulted in the deaths of many via a plague was called Kibroth-Hattaves (The graves of lust).

Judaism frowns on ostentation. Friedman ( provides three reasons that Jewish law felt that living an ostentatious and showy lifestyle was condemned by Judaism: (1) It arouses the envy of others, including the enemies of the Jewish people; (2) It causes people who are poor to become ashamed of their lack of wealth; and (3) it makes people supercilious. Friedman demonstrates how many customs and laws were modified in order to avoid ostentation. For example, many funeral rituals were modified in order not to embarrass those who lacked means. The dead—from the richest to the poorest-- all had to be buried in the cheapest flaxen shrouds. Till this very day, observant Jews are supposed to bury their dead in a plain pine box.

The ideal Jewish lifestyle is Histapkut bamuat, being content with less. Ben Zoma’s statement (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 4:1): “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot” succinctly states this philosophy. The following verse in Proverbs (21:17) indicates that a life of luxury can lead to poverty: “One who loves wine and oil shall not be wealthy.” Moreover, the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 5:19) states that “Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our forefather Abraham: … a good eye [generous], a humble spirit [humility], and a modest soul.” “Modest soul” is translated as one who controls his physical desires even for things that are permitted (Shaarei Teshuva, Shaar 1:34).

In the classic medieval ethics (mussar) work, Orchos Tzadikim (Chapter 14: Jealousy), the author notes that jealousy, a trait which no person can totally escape from, comes from observing what friends own. We become envious of a friend's garment, food, house, and/or wealth and envy leads to coveting. Once a person is overpowered by coveting, he becomes capable of violating each of the Ten Commandments. This is the reason the sages of the past prayed: "let no person's jealousy rise up against me nor my jealousy upon others." Causing others to be envious of oneself is a violation of the Biblical injunction against "placing a stumbling block before the blind person." The Orchos Tzadikim advises men, women, and children not to wear very beautiful and expensive clothing and thereby arouse the envy of others. He also advises moderation with regard to food and other goods for the same reason.

Many books dealing with Jewish ethics (mussar) recommend histapkut bamuat as an ideal way of living a Torah life. For example, Rabbi Yechiel b. Yekusiel Anav, in his classic thirteenth-century ethics book, Ma'alos Hamiddos, describes 24 important virtues. Virtue 21 is being content with less and he advises people against extravagance. Rabbi Bachya (1255 – 1340), in his classical work on ethics, Chovos Halevavos [Duties of the Heart], devotes an entire chapter to “The Gate of Abstinence.” He makes the point that a lifestyle focused on materialism, luxuries, and overindulgence will turn a person away from God. The Torah attempts to teach the individual the importance of intellect ruling over desires; and not to make the pursuit of pleasure one’s “Torah” and religion.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir (Kagan (1838 – 1933), a very influential scholar known as the Chofetz Chaim (Kuntros Sefat Tamim 5) states:

Our sages, blessed are they, have stated that: ‘Who is wise man? One who sees the consequences of his actions.’ Therefore, a person, even if he is in a strong situation, must always understand that because of the turbulence of our times, which is prevalent because of our many sins, one should behave when it comes to personal expenditures in the middle way, according to the individual and place. And even if God has been kind to him and given him great wealth, he should not wear very expensive embroidered clothing since that will damage his soul because it brings a person to arrogance and also incites the Evil Inclination. In addition, it causes others, who do not have the means to look at him and desire to emulate him. In the end, they will borrow and not repay their loans or rob and cheat. And because of these extravagances, the expenses in our times for clothing for weddings have increased so that many of our daughters are humiliated when it comes time for them to get married. Fathers and mothers cry and wail and no one can help them.

Many Jewish communities including those in Eastern Europe and Yemen passed sumptuary laws — regulations limiting personal expenditures on religious grounds — during the last several centuries. These regulations dealt with such matters as overly flamboyant clothing, expensive foods, ornate weddings, etc. More recently, the Agudah enacted guidelines limiting the size of weddings. The Satmar Rav, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, also instituted strict wedding and sheva berachot guidelines in 2008; they already had guidelines for bar mitzvahs.

Although Judaism definitely frowns on extravagance, most of the ancient Talmudic sages did not approve of asceticism (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 10a; Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 22a; Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 11a; Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:1). The prevalent view in Judaism seems to be that asceticism is not admirable (Tamari, 2000: 231-235). In fact, there is a Talmudic view that one will be punished for not indulging in permissible pleasures (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12).

While honestly-obtained wealth is not a problem, ostentation and materialism are seen as inconsistent with biblical values. Both can lead a person astray and therefore an ideal life is based on voluntary simplicity. A person who leads a relatively simple life -- albeit not ascetic – will more easily be able to live a spiritually fulfilling life.

Heshy Friedman is a Professor and Director of Business Programs, Brooklyn College


from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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