Beha’alotecha: Money Worries

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25 May 2010

In a number of places in halakha, we find either leniencies or strictures based on the psychological assumption that “a person is panicked over his possessions”. For example, normally it is permissible to move food on Shabbat without limit. Yet if there is a fire in the house, a person is allowed to remove only enough food for his family and his guests for the rest of the Shabbat. We are worried that if a person becomes absorbed in saving his possessions, he will get into a panic and extinguish the fire (Shabbat 117b, SA OC 334).

Conversely, normally a person is not allowed to ask a non-Jew to labor for him on Shabbat. But there is a leniency allowing someone who got delayed on the road to ask a non-Jew to carry his money. The reason is that “a person can’t control himself when it comes to his possessions” and he would other- wise be tempted to carry it himself, involving a Torah prohibition. (Shabbat 153a, SA OC 266. This expression seems very similar to the expression “a person is panicked over his possessions.)

The same principle applies to the assumption that “a person is in panic over his [relative’s] corpse”, and this principle also leads to both stringencies and leniencies. A parallel principle is that medical treatment for a minor ailment is forbidden because we are concerned that a person will become preoccupied with this health and prepare medicine in a forbidden way (See MB 303:49).

In a previous column (as well as in the forthcoming book) we suggested that behind the concern for Shabbat desecration is another consideration: that Shabbat, a day of calm and delight, shouldn’t become a day of panic or of preoccupation with worries. The object is not only to keep panic from leading to prohibitions, but also to avoid panic in the first place by creating clear guidelines as to what we may worry about.

Here we will elaborate on this idea specifically regarding panic over money and possessions. The underlying idea is that the prohibition on saving food, as well as the leniency to ask a non-Jews help with a purse, are meant not only to prevent Shabbat desecration but also to keep a person from becoming preoccupied with his possessions on Shabbat, a day when we should must be free from money worries. Indeed, we learn from the words of Yishayahu (58:13) who blesses one who guards himself “from seeking his objects” on Shabbat that a person must avoid all such concerns on the holy day (SA OC 306).

By permitting saving only as much food as a person needs for Shabbat meals, he is reminded that the true purpose is our possessions is enjoyment, not accumulation. Accumulating wealth is not forbidden or discouraged, but it is a weekday pursuit, that is – a means toward an end. Shabbat, which is likened to the world to come, is the end itself, and we are supposed to put accumulation out of our consciousness.

In this way we can understand the view of Rebbe Yosi bar Yehuda who provides a loophole that a person may invite guests purposely in order to be able to save more food (See MB 335:11). It’s hard to see how this will make a person less preoccupied with saving his possessions, but it does remind him that the proper use of his possessions is the sanctified enjoyment of Shabbat delight.

This can also explain an apparent anomaly in the above approach. If the idea of all the special rulings made because a person is panicked or preoccupied is to maintain Shabbat as a day of calm, we wouldn’t expect to find this principle applied on a weekday. It is true that almost all the applications of this principle are on Shabbat or Yom Tov, but one (at least) is on weekdays as well. The gemara in Pesachim (11a) discusses the case of a first-born animal (bechor). Such an animal is designated for a sacrifice, and so may not be slaughtered for eating unless it develops a blemish (SA YD 306); yet it is forbidden to deliberately cause a blemish (SA YD 313).

According to Rebbe Yehuda, it is forbidden to leech a bechor even when necessary to save its life; the concern is that out of panic to heal the animal the owner may induce a blemish. The Sages, by contrast, are concerned that if we do not permit saving the animal, panic over the loss will cause him to induce a blemish. In any case, all agree that the consideration of “money panic” applies also to a bechor.

Although it is not forbidden to be occupied, even a little preoccupied, with money matters on weekdays, this is inappropriate regarding a bechor. The commandment to sanctify the first-born animal is intimately connected to the idea of the sanctified use of our possessions. (This also was discussed at length in a previous column and in the book, based on the explanation of Rav Natan of Breslav.) Animals are the primary symbol of wealth; our sages say that even the name for cattle is cognate with the word for wealth (Chullin 84b). The idea that the beginning of this productive process is specially sanctified creates a precedent to remind us that all productive economic activity is meant to be elevated and sanctified. So the laws of bechor, like those of Shabbat, are an appropriate place to remind us that we should not be overly panicked over are possessions, and should always keep in mind that wealth is not an end in itself but rather the means to the end of sanctified enjoyment of our possessions.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.