Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh
Laws of Acquisitions (part 3) - Buying
Last week we added that fair dealing is an essential element in this process, since it enables humanity to clarify and discern the qualities of the object and help it find the person who is most in need of it, or to look at it the other way, the person that this object needs to fulfill its role in Providence. But mere verbal agreement is not enough; we interpreted this to mean that in order to fully realize the potential for holiness in our property, we require a sense of attachment and commitment which is cemented by a symbolic act of kinyan (acquisition).
This week we discuss the laws of acquisition through money. According to Torah law, giving money effects an acquisition, but the Rabbis decreed that even after money has changed hands the sides are allowed to renege (SA CM 199). They were worried that when the seller is still in physical possession of the merchandise but is no longer owner (because he received the money) that he might take improper care of the object. But reneging on such a sale is considered a serious breach of faith – much more serious than going back on a verbal agreement. (CM 204).
In order to present Rav Natan’s explanation, we will briefly introduce a common theme in the writings of Rav Natan’s master, Rav Nachman of Breslav. Rav Nachman emphasizes the mystical significance of possessions; in a number of places he writes that richness (ashirut) is the “root” of the soul. My understanding of this statement is that the essence of the creation is that the human soul is formed with a potential for the appreciation of Divine beneficence specifically as something that comes from beyond itself. Thus the human being is something separate from G^d, but is able to attain fulfillment only by reaching out to G^d and by experiencing contentment from His goodness, including through bodily and emotional enjoyments.
Rav Nachman also writes that money itself is an offshoot of this supernal root. Money does not embody any specific worldly enjoyment, but rather embodies an abstract power of obtaining worldly goods. We have pointed out before that having money places a person on a higher level in the chain of Providence, since he has anaugmented ability to emulate the Creator by channeling possessions towards their ideal recipients. In Rav Nachman’s writings the main vehicle for this exercise of providence is charity; another one frequently mentioned is integrity in business dealings. Thus money is at a high spiritual level, as we read “Mine is thesilver and Mine is the gold, thus the word of HaShem of Hosts” (Chagai 2:8).
However, this abstract power of money is “leveraged”. Just as any specific bodily pleasure can elevate us by giving us an appreciation of HaShem’s goodness or alternatively debase us by reducing our concern to our bodies rather than our spirits, so the abstract power of money can be supernal or infernal. Rav Nachman explains that it can turn into paganism, and indeed writes that the acquisitive urge is the root of pagan worship, pointing out that the Scripture often refers to idols as “silver and gold”. (See for example Devarim 29:16.)
Now we can complete the presentation of Rav Natan’s explanation. We began by stating that an acquisition is finalized when one side has attached himself to his acquisition in a way that will enable him to use it in G^d’s service. For instance, he may lift the object up to show his attachment to it and his commitment to elevate it. Obtaining money gives the person an even greater power to elevate nature, because of money’s supernal root. Thus giving money should finalize a transaction.
However, in humanity’s current fallen state, money is often obtained not in order to provide the wherewithal to provide some specific benefit but rather as accumulation for its own sake. In this case there is no dimension of attachment and commitment, so no acquisition (kinyan) is effected.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own Qs — www.jewishethicist.com or www.aish.com