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The Simple Life:
The Case Against Ostentation
in Jewish Law

Hershey H. Friedman

The Simple Life:
The Case Against Ostentation in Jewish Law

by Hershey H. Friedman**
Professor of Business and Marketing
Department of Economics
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York


While Judaism sees nothing wrong with wealth, it does frown on ostentation. Flaunting wealth has the following deleterious effects: (1) It makes one conspicuous and arouses the envy of others, including enemies of the Jewish people, (2) ostentation can cause people who are not very wealthy to become ashamed of their lack of means, and (3) it can make one arrogant. The purpose of wealth is to help others, not to show it off.

We live in a very affluent society. Unfortunately, the gap between the wealthy and the poor is still quite wide, and is widening further. Nueno (1998) notes that there are now more than 2,000,000 millionaires in the United States. In addition, the worldwide demand for luxury brands since 1995 has been growing at the rate of 10% per year; 30% in some countries. The "suppression of ostentation" which appeared in the early 1990's during a mini-recession in the United States has all but disappeared.

This paper will address the attitude of Jewish law towards ostentation. Is one permitted to live an extravagant, opulent, and excessive lifestyle? This paper will demonstrate that a showy, overly materialistic lifestyle is not considered an appropriate lifestyle by Jewish authorities. While it is true that Judaism has a very positive attitude towards wealth and does not generally admire an ascetic way of life, neither does it condone an ostentatious lifestyle.


The Jewish Attitude Towards Wealth

The Jewish attitude towards wealth is quite positive. In fact, wealth, peace, and/or long life are rewards from God for obeying God's laws (Leviticus 26: 3-13; Deuteronomy 11: 13-16; Deuteronomy 25:15; Proverbs 22:4). Those that use their wealth to help the poor will be blessed by God (Deuteronomy 15:10; Isaiah 1:17-19; Proverbs 19:17). The verse states (Deuteronomy 16: 11): "And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God - you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, the Levite that is within your gates, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow." The Midrash (Tanchuma, Deuteronomy 16: 11) notes that God asserts that four of the above ("your son, your daughter, your manservant, and your maidservant") are part of your household and four belong to Mine; take care of Mine and make them happy by providing for them, and I will take care of yours.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 9a) also sees wealth as a reward from God. In a wordplay on the verse (Deuteronomy 14: 22): "You shall surely tithe," the Talmud advises that one should tithe in order to become rich (the Hebrew word that means to tithe is very similar to the word that means to become rich). The verse (Proverbs 11:24), "There is one who scatters and yet is given more" is interpreted by many of the commentators (e.g., Rashi and Ibn Ezra) as referring to one who spends his money on the needy. The question of what a person should do to become rich is discussed in the Talmud; one answer is to engage in much business and deal honestly (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 70b). Wealth is seen as "comely to the righteous and comely to the world" (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 6:8), and affluent people who used their possessions to help others were respected by the Talmudic sages (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 86a).

In his classic thirteenth-century ethics (mussar) book, Ma'alos Hamiddos, Rabbi Yechiel b. Yekusiel describes 24 important virtues. He lists honestly-obtained wealth as a virtue (Virtue 19) since it enables one to help the needy. He notes that Abraham was wealthy and used his riches to help others.

It is clear that Judaism sees nothing wrong with wealth as long as it is obtained honestly and used to help the poor. Asceticism, on the other hand, was opposed by many of the Jewish sages opposed. Indeed, Rabbi Elazar Hakappar in explaining the verse (Numbers 6: 11): " And make atonement for him, for that he sinned regarding the person," states that the sin of the Nazirite was in abstaining from the pleasure of drinking wine. He adds: "If one who afflicted himself only with respect to wine is called a sinner, how much more so is one who ascetically refrains from everything considered a sinner. Therefore one who fasts [excessively] is called a sinner" (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 10a). Shmuel also agreed that ascetism is not to be admired and stated that even if one fulfills a vow of abstinence, he is called a sinner (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 22a), and that whoever fasts [excessively] is called a sinner (Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 11a). The Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) states: "It is not sufficient what the Torah has forbidden you, so you seek to prohibit upon yourself other things?"

Even though Rabbi Elazar disagreed with Shmuel and said that one who fasts is holy, the prevalent view in Judaism seems to be that ascetism is not admirable. Maimonides (Hilchos De'ot 3:1) concludes: "A person should not prohibit upon himself through vows and oaths the use of permitted things … Our Rabbis forbade that one afflict himself by fasting. Concerning this and similar matters, Solomon commanded us (Ecclesiastes 7:16): 'Be not overly righteous, nor excessively wise. Why should you be so desolate?'"

Rabbi Bachya, 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.

Tamari (2000, pp. 231-235) summarizes the many different opinions on asceticism and concludes that the sin of the ascetic is in rejecting the gifts of the Creator. Everything in this world has been created for the benefit of mankind and is good. Judaism requires that there be a balance between the physical-material side of the person and the spiritual side, and does not condone the total rejection of all pleasure.

Given that there is nothing wrong with wealth per se or with enjoying the permitted pleasures of this world, this paper will highlight three serious negative effects of flaunting wealth: (1) It makes one conspicuous and arouses the envy of others, including enemies of the Jewish people, (2) it can cause people who are not very wealthy to become ashamed of their lack of means, and (3) it can make one arrogant.

Arousing the Envy of Others

During the seven-year famine that afflicted the world, Jacob told his sons (Genesis 42:1): "Why do you make yourselves so conspicuous?" The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 10b) interprets this verse as follows: "Jacob said to his sons, 'Do not show yourselves to be sated either before Esau or Ishmael in order that you do not arouse their envy against you.'" This would seem to suggest that the Jewish people have to be careful about arousing the jealousy of the gentile nations that surround them. However, the Talmud uses this verse to derive the law that if a Jew travels from a town where the populace is not fasting to a town where the inhabitants are fasting, he should fast with them. Even if he inadvertently eats (or is a sick person who is permitted to eat), he should still not eat in public. This implies that the prohibition against "making oneself conspicuous" applies to arousing the envy of Jews as well as gentiles.

The Torah Temimah, commenting on the above-mentioned verse (Genesis 42:1), connects the idea of not making oneself conspicuous with the Talmudic (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 29b) assertion that "a person is accustomed not to make himself appear sated with wealth," and states that this Talmudic principle is derived from the above-mentioned admonition of Jacob to his children. The Talmudic principle is used to explain why when a person claims to owe money to others, we do not necessarily use this as an admission of indebtedness, and thus the "creditors" may not collect without additional proof. The Talmud believes that it is quite possible that the wealthy person pretended to owe money to several individuals either in order not to arouse the envy of others - people do not want to make others envious of their riches- and/or because of ayin harah, the evil eye.

This idea of not showing off wealth is also discussed by Rabbi Ephraim Lunshitz (c. 1550 - 1619), author of the Kli Yakar, a popular commentary on the Torah, in his homiletic interpretation of the verse (Deuteronomy 2:3): "Enough of your circling this mountain; turn yourselves northward." The Hebrew for "northward" is tzafonah, a word that also means "hidden." The Kli Yakar's homiletic explanation of this verse is that the Torah is telling the Jewish people to maintain a low profile when wandering around in exile and not flaunt wealth in order not to arouse the envy of the gentiles. He then criticizes those Jews in his generation who live beyond their means, wear fancy clothing, and live in extravagant homes and thereby incite their gentile neighbors against them. In the Kli Yakar's words, an individual with assets of a hundred lives as though he has thousands. The Kli Yakar then blames the troubles that befall the Jews on ostentatious lifestyles. Rabbi Lunshitz, headed a yeshiva in Lemberg, Poland and later on became a rabbi in Prague. His words were prescient and the horrific massacres of Polish Jews beginning in 1648 during an uprising led by Bogdan Chmelnitzki were a major tragedy for the Jewish people. Somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Jews were brutally murdered.

The enigmatic statement quoted in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Chagiga 9b), "Poverty is so fitting for the Jew, like a red strap (or saddle) on a white horse," is interpreted by Rabbi Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, in the following manner. A horse is saddled up when it goes out; in the stable everything is removed. So too, the Jewish people should wear their poverty when they go out in order not to arouse the envy of the gentiles. Within the privacy of one's house, however, wealth is good (Kreuser, 2000: p. 171).

Rabbi Menken (1995) asks why the Torah describes in so much detail the offerings brought by the heads of each tribe to commemorate the dedication of the Altar. After all, the offerings brought by the twelve tribal leaders were all identical and the Torah could have simply mentioned it one time. He cites the answer of Rabbi Shmuel Greinemann of Bnei Braq. The decision to bring exactly the same offering on the second day as on the first day was purposely made by the tribal leader (Nethanel ben Tzuar) who did not want to outdo the tribal leader who brought his offering on the first day (Nachhon ben Aminadav). Nethanel did not want to show off and thereby cause envy. The Lord was so pleased with this that he allowed one of the sacrifices to be brought even on the Sabbath (they were brought for twelve straight days) and recorded every leader's sacrifice in full detail. This is a message for future generations not to seek to outdo others and thereby arouse envy.

It is quite possible that all the "humor" about the Jewish American Princess (so called JAP jokes) is a modern-day manifestation of envy generated by conspicuous display of wealth. In civilized societies, Jewish neighbors who may appear wealthier than the rest of society are not physically assaulted, they are verbally attacked with nasty stereotypical humor.

Is There Anything Wrong with Being Envious of Others?

Arousing the envy of gentiles in non-democratic countries where Jews had few civil rights was certainly not wise. What, however, is wrong with making fellow Jews envious? In fact, marketers often use envy as a tool to promote status products. Much of the pleasure in owning a very expensive car (e.g., Rolls Royce), watch (Rolex), or pen (Mont Blanc), derives from showing it off. One commercial said it very succinctly: "If you've got it, flaunt it."

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 hat 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."

In Deuteronomy, the wording is changed from covet (tachmod) to desire (titaveh). One violates the prohibition of not coveting only if there is an action, even if one pays for the object. The violation against desiring another's property is even in the heart. Maimonides (Hilchos Gezelah 1:9-12) makes this distinction between tachmod and titaveh. Thus, Maimonides concludes that "desire leads to coveting and coveting leads to robbery." Also, one who simply desires another's property has violated one prohibition, whereas one who purchases the desired object by coaxing the owner to sell it to him is guilty of two prohibitions. One who steals the object is guilty of a third prohibition against stealing.

It is not clear whether or not individuals who purposely display their wealth to arouse the envy of their fellows are guilty of "lifnei iver," i.e., "placing a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14). This is a prohibition that includes helping or causing another to sin (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 22b). One might argue that being ostentatious may produce desire on the part of others for a particular product, but not necessarily desire for my product and is thus not a violation of lo titaveh.

It should be noted, however, that 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. Thus, flaunting wealth can cause one to be guilty of the sin of lifnei iver, according to the view of the Orchos Tzadikim.

Out of Deference to the Poor/Not to Shame Those of Limited Means

Sometimes, ostentation causes more than envy. Poor people will often, because of shame, borrow money to keep up with their neighbors when making weddings or bar mitzvahs. They borrow and then cannot repay the loans. Some might even in engage in dishonest practices in order to be able to afford the expense of keeping up with their neighbors. Certainly, very little good can result from making other people envious. The Talmud describes several rules that were instituted out of deference to the poor, i.e., so they should not feel ashamed of their poverty.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 27a-27b) notes that the following changes were enacted in the funeral ceremony in order not to embarrass the impecunious.
Our Rabbis taught: Formerly, they would bring food to the house of mourners in following manner: to the rich, in baskets of gold and silver and to the poor in wicker baskets made of peeled willows. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be provided with food in wicker baskets made of peeled willows out of deference of the poor.

Our Rabbis taught: Formerly, they would provide drinks to the house of mourners in the following manner: to the rich, in white glass [which was very expensive] and to the poor in colored glass. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be provided with drinks in colored glass out of deference to the poor.

Formerly, they would uncover the face of the rich [corpse] and cover the face of the poor because their face became blackened by famine. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all faces should be covered out of deference to the poor.

Formerly, they would carry out the rich [corpse] in a state bed and the poor on a common bier. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be carried out on a common bier out of deference to the poor…

Formerly, the expense of carrying out the dead was harder on the family than the death itself; the family therefore abandoned the corpse and fled. Until Rabban Gamliel [President of the Sanhedrin] disregarded his own dignity, and had his body carried out in flaxen shrouds. Afterwards, all the people followed his lead and had themselves carried out in flaxen shrouds. Rabbi Papa stated: And nowadays, all follow the practice of being carried out even in a canvas shroud that costs but a zuz.

The Meiri (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 27a), based on the above passage, makes a general statement that people should always be careful that poor people or others are not ashamed because of one's actions. Wealthy people should therefore do the same as the poor in order not to embarrass those that do not have the means.

The Mishna (Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 26b) describes the great days of joy on the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur when the single girls of Jerusalem would dance in the vineyards in front of the single men in order to attract a spouse. The Mishna notes that the girls went out in "white garments which they borrowed in order not to shame those that did not have the means," and could not afford nice clothing. The sages did not enact this but the girls on their own recognized the importance of not shaming those of limited financial means.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 82a) discusses why an individual was not permitted to burn a Paschal lamb that became ritually unclean in front of the Temple with his own wood. Rabbi Yosef offers the following reason: The sages did not want to embarrass the poor people who did not have their own wood so they, therefore, enacted that everyone had to use the altar wood that belonged to the Temple.

There is one situation in which the sages were not concerned with the principle of "not shaming those that do not have the means." Although the required amount of the Kethubah (the marriage certificate which indicates how much the wife will get if she becomes widowed or is divorced) is fixed - 200 zuz for a virgin and 100 zuz for a widow or divorcee- the husband is allowed to add as much as he wants (i.e., Tosfos Kethubah). The Gemara asks: Is this not obvious? Of course, an individual can add whatever he wishes. The Talmud answers that I might have thought that, in order not to embarrass those that do not have the means, the sages fixed the amount of the Kethubah and do not allow adding to it. This is why the Mishna explicitly states that one can add whatever amount he wishes. It seems clear that the sages did not want to use the principle of "not shaming …" in a situation where another party -one who was usually poor herself - would be hurt, i.e., the wife. The principle, however, is still operant in other situations.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 9b) feels that one who gives charity in secret is "greater than Moses." Charity, ideally, should be given in secret so that the two parties, the giver and the receiver, do not know each other (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 5a; Maimonides, Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 10: 7 -14). Maimonides lists eight levels of charity: There is only one level above completely anonymous charity - providing a poor person with employment. If Jewish law prefers that charity be anonymous so as not to embarrass the indigent, it certainly would not approve of ostentation - for the same reason.

Resulting in Arrogance and Conceit

The conspicuous display of excessive wealth can lead one to become arrogant. The Torah (Deuteronomy 8: 11-18) describes one of the dangers of affluence. A successful individual might believe that "my power and the might of my hand has made me all this wealth." The Torah states (Deuteronomy 32: 15) what can happen when the Jewish people overindulge in the pleasures of this world: "Jeshurun [Israel] became fat and kicked … And he forsook God who made him." Rather, one should remember that God gives wealth to individuals in order that they may do His will. The Torah (Deuteronomy 17:17) states that even a king is not permitted to "greatly increase for himself silver and gold." The reason is given in the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:20): "So that his heart does not become lifted above his brethren." Ramban, on this verse, makes the point that if haughtiness is to be shunned by a king all the more so should it be shunned by ordinary people. The king, however, is permitted to increase his wealth to help others (Sefer Hachinuch).

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.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Maakos 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." There are many interpretations of this Talmudic statement, the Etz Yosef interprets this as referring to moderation when making funerals and weddings, i.e., one should live a life of moderation and not be ostentatious, even when making funerals and weddings.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Berachos 57b) asserts that "three things broaden an individual's mind: a beautiful house, a beautiful wife, and beautiful clothing." It is not clear whether the term "broaden the mind" is positive or negative. The Maharsha, a major commentary, interprets this passage to mean that these three things can make one arrogant since it leads to a preoccupation with the pleasures of this world.

Maimonides (Hilchos De'ot 5: 9) describes the garment of the scholar as not being "of gold or purple wool that everyone stares at" or one that is so poor that it is an embarrassment to its wearer. Rather, one should choose the middle road when it comes to clothing and wear nice garments. Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried, in his compilation of Jewish laws and customs, the Kitzur Shulcan Aruch (3:3), also believes that the middle road is the ideal as far as clothing. He states that one should not wear clothing that is very expensive since it leads to arrogance; wearing clothing that is too cheap or soiled is not right since it will cause one to be denigrated by others.

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.

Sumptuary Laws

Tamari ( 1996, pp. 172-173) describes various sumptuary laws - regulations limiting personal expenditures on religious grounds - that were passed in Jewish communities during the last several centuries. The Jewish synod of the Rhineland enacted the following during the 13th Century: "no child of the Covenant shall dress after the fashion of the gentiles, nor wear sleeves [some kind of fancy accouterment] nor shall have long hair." This was enacted in Italy during the 15th Century: "In order that we may carry ourselves in modesty and humbleness before the Lord our God …no one may possess cloaks of any other color than black, sleeves may not have silk linings … so too cloaks of sable or ermine or expensively dyed material are forbidden." In 1728, the community of Furth prohibited serving coffee or tea as they were very expensive. In addition, a limit was placed on the number of musicians at festivities and the festivities had to end at midnight. In the middle of the 17th century, the Vaad Arba Aratzot, the Council of Four Lands, used a different approach. They decreed that the more guests one invited to a festive occasion, the more he had to pay to the community tax collector -two gold coins for 15 guests, four coins for 20 guests, six coins for 25 guests, etc. This ensured that money spent on extravagance would not mean less for the social needs of the community. Also, one poor person had to be invited for every 10 guests.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, as part of a Torah Ethics Project of the Orthodox Caucus, has prepared a Web page on materialism and moderation (Helfgott, undated). He cites several modern-day sources that have been concerned with ostentation. Rabbi Yaacov Landau, chief rabbi of Bnei Brak, in a letter dated Nissan 1996, complained of the showiness of bar mitzvah celebrations that included musical instruments in a large hall. He noted that "the earliest sages already decried the wasteful spending for all types of celebrations." He was concerned about the fact that these extravagant affairs caused a great deal of envy and resulted in people "assuming tremendous debts" to pay for these gaudy celebrations.

Helfgott presents the following excerpts from a public declaration of the Rabbis of Bnei Brak, (reprinted in The Jewish Observer June 1971):
To all our brethren, beloved sons of Israel, who fear God and revere his name: From the time of our inception as a nation we were distinguished as a people of spirit and nobility, leading modest and wholesome lives... "Nothing is more beautiful than modesty", our rabbis proclaimed, and a life of modesty was the crowning pride of our people throughout the ages. As of late, the stress on luxurious living is taking a toll an ever-increasing toll on our resources of time and money, and as a result the health and stability of entire families suffer... At an assembly of the rabbis we have decided to enact the following ordinances and enforce them with all the powers vested in us by our sacred Torah...
(a) A kiddush in shul marking a family celebration should be limited to whatever extent possible.
(b) Spending on gifts for a bride and groom should be limited.
(c) Guests at a wedding supper should be limited to family and an intimate circle of friends.
(d) The wedding supper should include only one main course, fish or meat, with appropriate side dishes.
(e) No flowers should be placed on the guests' tables.

Rabbi Eliezer Shach, Dean of the Yeshivat Ponevez, wrote in Nissan 1966 about the "excessive wasteful spending, in all types of celebrations, such as weddings and tenaim, and bar mitzvah celebrations." He also expressed concern for the great "suffering" of parents who had to borrow large sums of money for these affairs.

One Hassidic sect that has strict rules about the amount that may be spent on weddings is Gur. Because the price of apartments in Jerusalem is so high, they are told to live in other communities. In fact, they have a large community in Arad. The Rabbi of Gur warned the streimel (fur hats worn by Hassidim) manufacturers that if the price would be too high, he would order his Hassidim to stop wearing the streimels.

At the 2001 Agudath Israel Annual Convention, a brochure entitled "Guidelines for Financial Realism and Tzenius [modesty] in our Chasunas [weddings]" was given to participants. It called for such measures as eliminating the vort [engagement party], limitations on the smorgasbord, elimination of the bar and Viennese table, a ceiling of 400 invited guests, limits on the menu and dessert, and recommended a one-piece band (maximum of four musicians). The brochure notes that the reason for these restrictions is not only for financial reasons, i.e., they place a great burden on individuals of limited means, but primarily because "they simply detract from the ultimate purpose of our existence."

Histapkut Bamuat: Being Content With Less

If Judaism frowns on ostentation, what kind of lifestyle does it recommend? Histapkut bamuat, being content with less, is definitely considered a virtue in Jewish law. 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 Mishna (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). Rabbi Yechiel b. Yekusiel Anav (Ma'alos Hamiddos, Virtue 21) lists being content with less as a virtue and advises people against extravagance.

The Torah (Deuteronomy 12:20) uses the expression "When the Lord, your God, will broaden your boundary as He promised you, and you say, 'I will eat meat,' because your soul has a desire to eat meat…" The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 84a) states that the Torah teaches us a rule of conduct by introducing the section dealing with permission to eat unconsecrated eat with the phrase "broaden your boundary." One should not indulge in luxuries such as meat unless he can afford it. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 84a) derives a similar principle from the following verse in Proverbs (27:26): "And life for your maidens." According to the Talmud, this verse teaches us the following: "A parent should not accustom his children to eat meat and wine." The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 84b) also adds: "A person should always eat and drink less than his means allow, clothe and cover himself according to his means, and honor his wife and children [with nice clothing-Maharsha] with more than his means allow." The Talmud allowed one to spend relatively more on clothing than food because it felt that clothing was important since proper attire provides an individual with dignity (Rashi). Note that the Talmud was not advising an individual to provide lavish, expensive clothing for his family.

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 notes that the Torah teaches one to sate himself with simple foods such as bread and eat luxuries such as meat only occasionally.

Apparently, the Torah does not want people to squander their wealth - if they are not well off - even on simple luxuries such as meat and wine. People have to live a life of moderation and frugality and thereby be content. Being ostentatious and indulging in a lavish lifestyle, especially if one cannot afford it, can only lead to dishonesty and pilfering.


Greenwald (1996, p. 87) notes that Judaism teaches one to be satisfied with his lot and devote time for spiritual purposes. Even wealthy people should not live in luxury, wasting their wealth on unnecessary things. Rather, wealth should be used for charity, for performing deeds of loving kindness, and for studying Torah.

One of the Talmudic sages noted that former generations were at a much higher spiritual level than his own generation and they were thus worthy of having miracles performed for them (Babylonian Talmud, Berachos 20a). In fact, when there was a drought, this sage noted, one pious man of an earlier generation would simply remove his shoe (as a sign of affliction) and it would immediately start raining; whereas, the sages of his own generation could torment themselves and cry all day and get no rain. The Talmud asserts that the sages of the previous generations were willing to make great sacrifices for the sanctification of God's name. For instance, Rabbi Addah bar Ahavah once saw a woman that he thought was Jewish wearing a karbalta (a very ostentatious red garment) in the street and tore it off her. It turned out the woman was not Jewish and the authorities fined him. This story indicates how wrong it is for Jews to wear ostentatious garments. It is so improper that the Talmud states that Rabbi Addah was sanctifying the name of the Lord by his action.

The sages recognized that very little good can result from a splashy, gaudy lifestyle. On the contrary, it produces envy, suffering, arrogance, dishonesty, and shaming of the impecunious. The Torah teaches us that ostentation is not the true purpose of wealth, helping others is.


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(2001, July 30).

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Kreuser, Yissaschar Dov. (2000). Genuzas Ha'GRA. Jerusalem: self-published (in Hebrew).

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Nueno, Jose Luis. (1998). "The Mass Marketing of Luxury." Business Horizons, Vol. 41(6), pp. 61-68.

Tamari, Meir. (2000). Jewish Values in Our Open Society. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.

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* The author wishes to thank Menachem Klein, for his insights and assistance.

** About the Author: Hershey H. Friedman received his doctorate in marketing and statistics from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His areas of research include business ethics, literary humor, measurement problems in surveys, computer simulation, and leadership. He has published more than 125 articles in scholarly journals and proceedings. (Editor's Note: For other articles by Professor Friedman, please see "Ideal Occupations: The Talmudic Perspective" and "Placing a Stumbling Block Before the Blind Person: An In-Depth Analysis".)

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