Jewish religious tradition portrays Rosh Hashanah as the day on which all humanity passes in judgment before the Almighty. The solemn imagery of the “Untanneh Toḳef” hymn conveys the high stakes of this judgment: “Who will live and who will die”—who will or will not be granted a full natural lifespan, who will die peacefully and who suddenly, painfully or tragically?
Amid such gut-wrenching life-and-death scenarios we might be forgiven if we are not particularly impressed by a more prosaic verdict that is ascribed to the New Year judgment: “who will be reduced to poverty and who will enjoy wealth?”
The Talmud, however, singles out this aspect of our annual audit for special consideration. Rav Taḥlifa the brother [or father] of Rabinai of Ḥozai taught: “All of a person’s livelihood is allocated from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, except for the expenses related to the sabbaths and festivals, and the costs of the children’s Torah education. As regards these, if one spends less, then his allotment will be reduced, but if he spends more, then the allotment will be increased.”
The basic themes of Rav Taḥlifa’s teaching are familiar ones: As an incentive for us to repent and mend our behaviour during the “days of awe,” we should bear in mind that the sizes of our incomes and of our grocery carts for the coming year will be determined in proportion to how we fare in our annual performance review.
Furthermore, Rav Taḥlifa insists, we are encouraged to be generous when it comes to the costs of religious activities, and not focus too narrowly at the bottom line. We ought to have faith that the Almighty will arrange somehow for our incomes to be supplemented so as to cover the deficits. Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili noted that the Talmud mentioned sabbaths, holidays and education as common examples, but that the same rule would apply equally to other religious precepts.
Rashi approached the passage from a narrower and more practical perspective. The point was not so much about how your virtuous or sinful conduct can affect your economic prosperity in the coming year. Rather, Rashi regarded the Rosh Hashanah judgment as analogous to the submission of an annual budget by a CFO. “Everything that a person is destined to earn during the coming year, which will serve as the basis of one’s livelihood, is budgeted precisely. One should therefore be scrupulous to avoid excessive expenditures, since funds for provisions will not be supplemented beyond the original allocation.”
This is the same principle that would later be restated succinctly by Dickens’ Micawber: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and six, result: happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result: misery.”
Rashi may have been impelled to apply his accountancy model to Rav Taḥlifa’s teaching in order to resolve the incongruity between the inclusive tone of the first clause and the exceptions advocated at the end. (I personally suspect that somebody in Rashi’s family had been overspending their household budget.)
Unlike Micawber’s £20, however, when the Rosh Hashanah budgets are drawn up most of us do not get to be in the room where it happens, so we cannot be certain how much we were given to spend. Rashi presumably intended that we should be conservative and plan for the worst case, spending as little as we can on nonessential pleasures.
Several commentators were troubled by Rav Taḥlifa’s directive to spend lavishly on sabbaths and festivals. It appeared to contradict a famous statement by Rabbi Akiva: “treat your sabbath like a weekday rather than placing yourself in debt.”
In an uncharacteristic personal reminisce in his Arba‘ah Ṭurim law code, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher recalled how, when he was in financial straits, he would often ask his father Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel whether his predicament was severe enough to justify economizing on his sabbath meals. In the end he was inspired by an insight that he found in a commentary on the tractate Avot attributed to Rashi. The Mishnah there juxtaposes Rabbi Akiva’s saying to Rabbi Judah ben Teima’s exhortation to be “as ferocious as a leopard in carrying out the will of your father in heaven.” From this we may infer that, except for cases of most extreme poverty, we should all be prepared to battle like leopards to enhance our religious observance by trimming our weekday expenses, and trust in the Lord to balance our accounts.
In any case, various authorities quibbled about exactly how poor a person must be before having to “treat their sabbath like a weekday.” If the person does not have the wherewithal to repay a loan, that would seem to qualify—but what if it were possible to obtain the requisite funds from charity funds? And even then, didn’t Rav Taḥlifa say that we should place our trust in the Creator and go into debt for the sake of a worthy objective?
The insistence on living within one’s means resonated strongly with Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, the “Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim.” In the chapter about sabbath preparation in his Mishnah Berurah compendium he digressed into an impassioned diatribe about how this topic “constitutes a severe reprimand of our own generation.” Too many people fail to keep a proper accounting of their household expenses, and their love of extravagances (in this matter he attaches particular blame to the womenfolk) causes their spending to exceed their earnings. Then in order to keep their financial heads above water they end up indulging in questionable business practices. “This kind of misconduct has been the downfall of many people, leading eventually to crimes of larceny and violence, and even to disgrace and humiliation.” I’m not sure that the situation has improved much since then.
Undoubtedly we could all profit from learning to live within our means ...and subjecting ourselves to a periodic moral audit.