This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Fiscal Prudence*

The third-century Babylonian sage Rav Huna acquired a reputation for his saintly deeds. When Rava demanded an example of his benevolence, he was informed that it was Rav Huna's custom to dispatch an agent to the market every Friday in the late afternoon, as the Jewish shopkeepers were shutting down for the Sabbath, to buy up all the unsold greens. Rav Huna instructed the agent to toss the vegetables into the river.

By minimizing the losses that would otherwise be inflicted on the sellers due to unsold and perisshable inventory, Rav Huna's actions achieved the long-term effect of assuring his community's food supply. This behaviour was presented to Rava as a display of extraordinary righteousness.

Nevertheless, some of the talmudic rabbis raised initial objections to this policy, which must have seemed as absurd to them as (to take a far-fetched example) the prospect of a government paying farmers not to grow certain crops in order maintaining price stability.

For one thing, the rabbis argued, the prospect of throwing out food runs counter to deeply ingrained Jewish sensibilities. Would it not make more sense to distribute it to the needy?

To this objection the Talmud replied that it was advisable not to encourage dependence on charity for basic dietary staples, since this particular source of sustenance could not always be relied upon.

In discussing Rav Huna's approach to market regulation, some of the medieval commentators maintained that it was an instance of a fundamental principle of Jewish law: "The Torah is sparing with the money of Israel."

Now, this assertion might be regarded with a measure of skepticism by those of us who endure the financial burdens imposed by kosher diet, private religious schools, synagogue memberships, and the many other outlays that add to the expenses of maintaining of a Jewish life-style.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Torah's commitment to reducing the costs of religious observance is indeed a fundamental axiom.

The ancient Jewish sages found an unexpected precedent for this idea in an obscure area of purity laws.

According to Leviticus 14, a house can be stricken by a "plague" that infests the walls. However, before a mold-like growth is officially determined to be impure, it must be declared so by a priest who is summoned to inspect it.

The Torah stipulates that before the formal inspection is conducted, "the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest go into it to see the plague, so that all that is in the house be not made unclean. And afterward the priest shall go in to see the house." 

This was understood by the rabbis to mean that the owner of the house was being given a loophole to rescue household items by removing them from the house before the impending declaration of impurity. This devious-looking advice is to be carried out with the full knowledge of the priest, and with the encouragement of the Torah itself.

But the matter does not end there. The incisive exegesis of the rabbis pointed out some additional implications of this situation.

They noted, for example, that most of the objects that are susceptible to defilement, such as metal, wood or cloth, can be restored to purity with relative ease, by immersing them in a mikvah. The major exceptions to this pattern would be earthenware vessels, which are among the least costly items in most households.

Furthermore, rabbinic tradition regarded plagues of this sort as being of a spiritual character, inflicted as divine punishment for the sins of gossip and slander.

Based on these premises, Rabbi Meir in the Mishnah reasoned: If the Torah is so attentive to the trivial inconveniences of sinners, imagine how much care it must take to avoid serious financial losses to decent, respectable folks!

The rationale that "the Torah is sparing with the money of Israel" was invoked to explain why, when the faithless Israelites complained to Moses about the scarcity of water in the wilderness, the Almighty took the extra trouble to provide them with miraculous water from the rock, not only for the humans, but also for their cattle.

Similarly, the talmudic sages used this principle to explain several peculiar regulations of biblical law and Temple practice. For example, the law that requires the Passover lamb to be shared among a group of celebrants was described as a cost-cutting measure. They also observed that ritually forbidden fats, though they may nor be eaten, can be put to other uses; and meat that has not been properly slaughtered can nevertheless be given to non-Jews.

The rabbis also resorted to this principle in order to understand why it is that, in spite of the general tendency to glorify the Temple and its rituals with only the finest and most elaborate materials (ideally, gold), Jewish tradition insisted on making some exceptions to that rule.

It is, they argued, out of concern for the money of Israel that the High Priest does not don golden robes when performing the solemn Day of Atonement service. This is why mere silver was used to plate the shofars that were sounded on public fast days, as well as for the censers upon which incense was burned in the daily worship. For the same reason, the lottery tokens used for choosing the scapegoat on Yom Kippur were fashioned from wood, and not from a more precious metal.

Out of analogous budgetary considerations, Jewish religious law does not insist on subjecting the flour of the meal offerings, or the olive oil in the Temple menorah, to the most rigorous degree of refinement. Furthermore, the quantity of the oil in the menorah was measured so as to burn exactly for the duration of the night, as a way of reducing energy costs.

It should be pointed out that the Jews were not the only community in the ancient world who were worried about the high prices of ritual observance. The Greek comedian Menander lamented how married men were constantly being reduced to poverty by their wives' insistence that they offer expensive sacrifices on every festival.

The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus praised Rome's founder Romulus for instituting a cult that was not overly taxing on the  pocketbooks of its citizens. It was considered acceptable to offer food to the gods on old wooden tables, in crude baskets or earthenware trays. He was especially gratified that gold and silver vessels were not required for pouring libations, but clay jugs were deemed perfectly satisfactory.

As we saw in the case of Rav Huna, consideration for the pocketbooks of the common people was considered a commendable virtue in communal and political leaders. A talmudic rabbi relied on this principle in opting for a lenient halakhic interpretation of a kashrut-related question. A midrashic text praised King Saul because he was scrupulous about paying for expenses from his own money, and not from the public treasury.

Indeed, there are valuable lessons to be derived from these precedents, lessons that may not have been fully absorbed by the all of the public office-holders in our own days.


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca