Historically, people have always wondered why Jewish people are so rich or why they are so successful in the business world. There are many reasons that make this possible and support the reality of this outstanding community. One powerful idea is that Jews don’t believe that poverty is necessary to be happy or stay away from sins. Another idea is related to the fact that Jews choose to be wealthy in order to provide better things for their families and close ones.
In this article, Yosef Meystel will talk about these subjects and will give a general view on poverty, wealthy and charity according to Jewish teachings, history, and sacred books.
The meaning of Poverty for Jews
In the western world, we have a powerful Christian heritage that has shared the strong belief of poverty as a sublime condition. Those who are the poorest have a greater chance of being saved. According to Jewish education, poverty is neither virtuous nor desirable. Jews understand poverty as an unnecessary and negative state.
Many Rabbis argue that poverty consists in pointless suffering. And, unlike the most traditional Christian views, Jews don’t see virtue in poverty since it doesn’t lead to righteousness. Among Jews, the idea of choosing poverty to proof holiness is not admired and is not considered a positive value. Instead of this, the Torah states that you should be good to yourself and this includes feeding yourself and finding a place to sleep. This conditions of not depriving yourself of material stuff include measure but Jews believe that it is a fortune for them to be in this world and so good things must come to them.
Despite the fact that poverty is not desirable for Jews, they Judaic Law commands Jews to help, respect and protect the poor. According to Jacobs and Greer, the poor is equal to a brother and it shall not be seen as different. This is where charity becomes important, to help the poor to stay away from being exploited or discriminated.
The meaning of Wealthy for Jews
As a general idea, Jews don’t see wealth as a purpose but as a means. With wealth Jews are able to create a great atmosphere at their homes and offer better things to their children and guests at their tables. Wealth gives Jews the possibility of giving time, love, Jewish educations and attention to others. Also, wealth allows Jews to help others through charity and work hard for their communities. In other words, wealth gives Jews the chance to contribute to the well-being of their communities and loved ones.
Besides, wealth is necessary to avoid poverty. Jews as taught to earn their own living through a generous employment. These profits are meant to help Jews to stay away from unjustified suffering. Also, Jews shall always stay away from depending on others or their communities to exist. Their welfare should never rely on others to provide for them as each Jew is responsible for its own welfare. Since Jews stopped being nomadic groups and had the chance to become landowners and bankers, they have done their best to stay away from poverty and amass fortunes.
There is something else about the concept of the wealthy for the Jewish culture. Jews are encouraged to earn a salary and make their own fortune so they can be responsible for their living and support others through charity. However, they are not forced to do anything with their fortunes. They can do as they please with everything they own. Redistribution of wealth is not mandated.
The importance of Charity for Jews
There is an important Hebrew word for Jews that means charity and it is Tzedakah. It also means righteousness or justice and it is an obligation to Jews. Though charity is usually a spontaneous act where individuals give something away to someone who needs it without expecting something in return, Tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to do what is fair and right to others. In this sense, Judaism is very emphatic about the importance of supporting others through donations (some of them made anonymously) and live a spiritual life.
Jews are always taught to do what is right and just. For the Jewish culture giving a gift or doing things for others are considered high values and religious obligations. Regardless the financial status, Jews must do something for the poorest. In this way, Tzedakah represents one of the three main acts that allow Jews to obtain a heavenly decree. The charity helps to share the wealth with other and prevent individuals to amass great fortunes that should be shared with those who need them.
Among the richest Jews, philanthropy is a big deal. Some of the wealthiest Jews have made generous donations to charitable causes through the years. Since the 19th century, wealthy Jews have helped the poorest Jews to have a similar status. The reason to this is to protect the Jewish fortune from being taken away due to the behavior of Jewish vagrants. This is how many activists started the first community activities to fund the poorest and train the youngest in different trades so they could stay away from poverty.