By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
How did it happen? Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were completely aghast at the frivolous spending of money. Yet, somehow, we have become a nation with a strong focus on both spending money and demonstrating that we can. We must ask ourselves whose values are more in consonance with the Torah’s — ours or that of our grandparents?
In times past, there were great Torah leaders who were concerned about rising costs. One rabbi ruled that when the fishermen collude and overprice the fish, a prohibition can be made against the consumption of fish on Shabbos. It may take a week or two or even three, but eventually the collective buying power of the ordinary people would force the price back down.
When Jews were burying their dead in the finest of clothing, a great rabbi arose and declared that enough is enough. The rising pressure, the “keeping up with the Joneses,” in how to dress the deceased was causing enormous economic pressure on the living. “It must stop,” declared the rabbi, and the tachrichim, burial shrouds, we now use became the norm.
We see, however, that it is not just great Torah leaders who are concerned for the financial wellbeing of their fellow Jews. It seems that this is what is expected of everyone by the Torah. We have to keep this in mind when we are faced with the enticing nature of consumerism that contemporary society offers. It seems then that the Torah sources indicate that as far as these values are concerned, our scores are: grandparents: 1, our generation: 0.
There is also another reality. Our hyper-consumerism contributes to the atmosphere of the need for unbridled spending and the need to demonstrate that we can. This, in turn, creates enormous pressures upon everyone to overspend, even more and more.
The Talmud tells us (Menachos 76a) that Hashem commanded Moshe to feed the nation’s livestock from the water that Hashem had caused to emanate from the rock at Mei Merivah. Also, Rashi (Rosh Hashanah 27a) points out that the kohen first removes the vessels from a house before declaring the house impure.
These are both clear examples of the Torah being concerned with the financial wellbeing of the Jewish nation. The difference between the two cases is that the former is for the entire nation, while the latter demonstrates that the Torah is concerned even for the individual’s finances. There is no mention here of spending.
The Chasam Sofer on Bava Basra (54b) states that, generally speaking, one can make the assumption that fellow Jews are concerned with the monetary wellbeing of their fellow man and that this assumption has legal ramifications. We see then that it is the normal behavior expected of all Jews.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, author of the Tur, discusses a person who does not care about Jewish money (Choshen Mishpat section of Shulchan Aruch, chapter 35). He writes that such a person will in the future surely answer for it. The Minchas Chinuch writes that one who is concerned about the preservation of his fellow Jew’s money fulfills the Biblical commandment of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha (see his commentary on that mitzvah).
The clear indication from all these sources is that demonstrating concern for the financial wellbeing of others is not just a mitzvah — it is an expected social norm with reward for those who do it and punishment for those who do not.
On the other hand, upselling is the practice in which someone tries to persuade a customer to purchase a higher-end product, an upgrade, or an additional item in order to make a more rewarding sale. A salesperson may try to influence a customer into purchasing the newest version of an item, rather than the less-expensive current model, even when the item has features that the consumer doesn’t really need.
There are many areas in which we can fulfill this mitzvah. One manner is to tell people about how to save significant money in healthcare. For example, people should look into United Refuah Healthshare, which can save a family five to ten thousand dollars per year in medical costs.
Businesspeople can do this, too, by cutting costs and passing on savings. With the proper motivation, doing so would be a fulfillment of a Biblical commandment of loving thy neighbor as thyself.
If a business were to negotiate with suppliers to reduce the price, shouldn’t the business consider passing half or a third of that savings to the customers?
It is important to stick to the percentage plan chosen at the outset when deciding to embark upon this mitzvah. For example, if a yeshiva administrator decided that he was going to try to cut costs (or attempt to raise an extra $200,000 this year) and decided to pass along half that amount to the parent body, he should keep to that 50 percent figure and not give in to temptations of not passing it along.
Many doctors already do it. How many times have we seen a doctor give a patient some medicine samples in order to save the patient the costs of filling a prescription? (This is permitted because the pharmaceutical companies give it to the doctors to dispense.) Or how many times do we see that a doctor will selflessly perform a procedure in his office just to save his patients the time and money involved in having to pursue it elsewhere?
Many businesses offer a group health plan to their employees but have stopped paying for it because of the expense involved. Still, trying to negotiate a better deal for them would be a fulfillment of this very noble Torah ideal — being concerned for the financial wellbeing of our brethren.
Another avenue we can fulfill this Torah mitzvah is by familiarizing ourselves with various programs and prices that are available so that we are in a better position to recommend it to others. For example, there are many people out there who are eligible for state-subsidized dental, orthodontic, and medical insurance for their children. There is no stigma in taking advantage of these programs if you are truly eligible. A huge percentage of people are completely unaware of these programs. It would be a mitzvah of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha to be informed about these programs and to pass the information on to others.
What is important to keep in mind is that the mitzvah is not just to benefit the poor; the mitzvah applies to everyone.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.