Nehemiah – Chapter 5

Fiscal Responsibility

By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Nehemiah was approached by several groups of needy Jews. The first complained that they had no money with which to buy food for their families. The second complained that they had to mortgage their property to buy food and they were afraid of foreclosure. The third group went into debt to pay their taxes and were worried that they would have to indenture their children. Needless to say, Nehemiah was not happy to hear these reports and he confronted the wealthy of the community, who had been taking advantage of their brethren.

Nehemiah chewed out the ones who had driven the poor to such desparate straits. He called them loan sharks and pointed out the irony of ransoming Jews from slavery just for these lenders to drive them back into it. The “fat cats” knew that he was right and had no response. He concluded that the lenders should adhere to the way of G-d in their actions; doing so would ward off ridicule from the other nations.

Nehemiah and his followers had also lent out money. They publicly canceled the debts owed to them and they encouraged the other lenders to do likewise. He instructed that the property of the indebted parties should be returned to them. The lenders readily agreed to this, unconditionally. After instructing the kohanim likewise, Nehemiah shook out his garment and said that G-d should likewise “shake out” from their homes all those who would violate this arrangement. The people said “Amen” and praised G-d.

Not only did Nehemiah stand up for the poor, going so far as to cancel debts that were owed to him, he and his staff never accepted public funds to pay their wages – and Nehemiah governed for 12 years! His predecessors not only collected their salaries, they made the people provide them with bread and wine! Not only did Nehemiah not draw a salary, he paid from his own pocket towards the wall reconstruction project. Everyone worked on the wall and Nehemiah supported 150 prominent Jews and numerous converts from his own table. Every day he had to have prepared an ox, six sheep, poultry and a ten-day supply of wine. Despite all these personal expenses, Nehemiah would not accept tax money to pay his salary, figuring that the people’s fiscal burden was already heavy enough. Nehemiah asked G-d to remember his sacrifices as a merit for the people. (The Talmud in Sanhedrin 93b suggests that this request was a little too full of himself, so G-d took him down a peg by making Nehemiah’s Book a part of the Book of Ezra.)

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