This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Minimizing Your Assets*

In our materialistic and competitive society it is normal for people to want to appear more affluent than they are, even if it requires them to get into debt. A reputation for financial stability is, of course, advantageous when they are trying to attract investors, to maintain a healthy credit rating.

There are however situations when it is preferable to seem poor. The example that springs most readily to mind is at tax time.

Talmudic law deals with several cases in which this latter assumption is accepted, that people have intentionally tried to make their economic conditions appear less rosy than they really are.

Take the following example: A dying man admits to an otherwise unknown debt that is still outstanding.

In normal cases of deathbed declarations, Jewish law tends to forego the legal formalities, in recognition of the fact that a person approaches such occasions with great seriousness. In the present instance, however, the Talmudic rabbis state that the sum should not automatically be paid to the alleged creditor because we suspect that "a person is likely not to make himself appear sated"; i.e., he might be trying to misrepresent his financial status, or that of his heirs.

The standard commentaries to this Talmudic passage suggest that a person might act in this manner in order to evade the envious clutches of the Evil Eye; however it is easy to imagine other motives.

To judge from the incidental references that are sprinkled throughout rabbinic literature, the soil of Israel was veritably saturated with buried treasure. Talmudic jurisprudence has to deal with cases where valuables were unearthed in a newly purchased field or in the wall of a building, with the old and new owners both laying claim to them.

In narrative settings, a hero’s unexpected and fortuitous discovery of a treasure often provides an author or preacher with a convenient means of creating an instant upturn in their fortunes, usually to supply a happy ending, or a supernatural reward for virtuous deeds. These contrived plot twists are familiar to us from the comedies of Terence or Plautus, who were active at about the same time as the Talmudic rabbis.

As usual, the ancient prachers ascribed the same kinds of behaviour to the personalities of the Bible. For example, the gold, silver and precious stones that were amassed by Joseph when he was viceroy of Egypt were prudently buried in four different places. Jewish Legend had it that two of the troves were eventually discovered by Korah and the Roman Emperor Antoninus, respectively; the remainder will remain in concealment until they are enjoyed (tax free?) by the righteous in the Messianic era.

All these stories are grounded in the same social reality, where individuals who had amassed nest-eggs preferred not to advertise the fact, lest they become targets of the rapacious Roman tax-collectors, or of long-lost poor relations.

Later Jewish folklore is replete with stories of Elijah the prophet appearing to unsuspecting individuals in the guise of a poor beggar in order to test how charitable they are towards insignificant strangers. Those who pass the test are likely to be blessed with a suitable reward, such as a promise of offspring who will grow to become celebrated saints and Torah scholars.

Another situation when it is advantageous to seem poor is when it entitles a person to receive charity. In the sophisticated welfare system of Talmudic law, strict standards were established to define who was allowed to benefit from the donations. The Mishnah states that a person who possesses 199 zuz may collect welfare, whereas the privilege is forfeited as soon as their income reaches the two hundred mark.

In connection with this law, the Jerusalem Talmud tells us of a disciple of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi whose assets amounted to precisely 199 zuz, which earned him regular stipends form his teacher, while at the same time arousing the envy of his classmates, who used the evil eye to tamper with his income. To the student’s chagrin, he found himself cursed with affluence, raised to a higher tax bracket. At that point his benefactor was compelled to withdraw his support.

Recognizing the source of the unfortunate young man’s predicament, Rabbi Judah ordered the students to take their fellow out to eat, and to have him pay the bill. This brought his income down to 199.75, and enabled the student to get back on the dole.

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, January 21 1999, pp. 12, 14.