Techumin volume 29 includes an astonishing ruling from Rav Shlomo Aviner, a leading Halachic authority in the Religious Zionist community. Rav Aviner writes, “A wealthy individual must donate all of his wealth to satisfy the essential needs of poor individuals, even if the wealthy person thereby becomes a member of the middle class.” Rav Aviner defines the essential needs of an individual as those that would make him an average individual or what we would call middle class. Although Rav Aviner supports his assertion from classic Halachic sources, to my knowledge no other leading authority has made such a sweeping statement. Moreover, it contradicts common practice, to which no Rav other than Rav Aviner objects.
Evidence for Rav Aviner
One might object to Rav Aviner by citing the well-known Gemara (Ketubot 50a) that the Rabbis in Usha instituted (commonly referred to as “Takanat Usha”) a maximum of twenty percent that one may donate to Tzedakah. Rav Aviner, though, cites the Chafetz Chaim (at the end of his commentary to Avot) who argues that the Takanat Usha applies only to individuals of average financial means but not to wealthy individuals. The reason for Takanat Usha, as stated in the Gemara, is that “the donor does not become dependent on others.” Accordingly, since a wealthy individual will not become dependent on others even if he donates more than twenty percent of his wealth, Takanat Usha was not issued in regards to such individuals.
Although Chazal (Bava Metzia 62a) teach that one’s life enjoys priority over another’s life, the Chafetz Chaim rules (cited in the work Amud HaChessed page 18, printed in the end of the Chafetz Chaim’s Ahavat Chessed) that one’s wealth does not have priority over another individual’s life. Indeed, the title of Rav Aviner’s essay is “One’s luxuries do not come before the life of others.” He concludes with a citation from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (Teshuvot Orach Mishpat Orach Chaim 188:54) that whatever is necessary to preserve the life of a poor individual enjoys priority over all personal luxuries.
Rav Aviner marshals an important discussion in the Gemara (Nedarim 80b), which presents a debate between Rabi Yose and the Chachamim regarding the parameters of the obligation of one community assisting another community, as evidence. Both agree that if one community has enough water only to sustain itself and the other has no water, the first city does not have to forsake its own water to save the other city, since one’s life enjoys priority over another’s life. However, if one city has sufficient water for both drinking and for laundering and the other town has no water even for drinking, according to the Chachamim one town must forego washing its clothes in order to save the lives of the residents of the other community. Rabi Yose argues that the town may retain even its water for washing and risk the lives of the other town since not washing clothes can lead to severe damaging effects and can cause severe long-term health problems.
Rav Aviner concludes from this Gemara that even Rabi Yose believes in retaining only that which is essential for living. However, one must give up any luxury whose absence does not cause a danger to his well-being in order to save the lives of others.
Criticism of Rav Aviner’s Ruling
One cannot overemphasize the importance of donating generously to Tzedakah. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 10:1) writes, “We must be careful in our observance of the Mitzvah of Tzedakah more so than any other positive Mitzvah, for Tzedakah is an indicator of being a descendent of Avraham Avinu and the Jewish People will be redeemed only through Tzedakah, as Yeshayahu (1:27) teaches, ‘Zion shall be redeemed with justice and its returnees with Tzedakah.’”
Moreover, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 249:1) does indeed state that someone of significant financial means should donate to Tzedakah “as much as he is able.” One may question, though, Rav Aviner’s assertion that “as much as he is able” means that he must forego his wealth. Common practice does not reflect such an interpretation and an alternative interpretation is that a wealthy individual should give generously to the extent he can retain his basic lifestyle and not reduce his socioeconomic standing. Indeed, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 1:38, in the context of a ruling regarding Hasagat Gevul) rules that it is unreasonable to expect someone to reduce his socioeconomic standing in order to assist others. Indeed, the principle of Deracheha Darchei Noam, the ways of the Torah are pleasant (Mishlei 3:17; see how this Pasuk is applied in Sukkah 32b and Yevamot 87b), would argue that it is too much to expect from someone to relinquish his wealth in favor of Tzedakah.
The Torah (Shemot 30:15) describes both wealthy and poor individuals in Am Yisrael. Thus, the Torah essentially advocates a capitalist society, although with some limitations (such as the Shemitah year in which the economy essentially is transformed into a socialist economy). This is quite unlike Rav Aviner’s vision of a financially egalitarian society in which neither wealthy individuals nor poor individuals (or no wealthy individuals unless everyone else is in the middle class) exist. While Tzedakah and other Torah laws are meant to curb excessive capitalism, the Torah nonetheless adopts a fundamentally capitalistic approach to financial matters.
Moreover, Rav Aviner’s ruling is simply counterproductive. Wealthy individuals donate most Tzedakah, and were they expected to forego their wealth on behalf of Tzedakah, then in the long run Tzedakah would lose more by following Rav Aviner than if his ruling were not adopted. Moreover, people would lose their motivation to accumulate wealth because they would be obligated to part with it once they attained the wealth. Finally, wealth has the potential to generate even more wealth and were one obligated to part with his small fortune, he would also be obligated to forego the opportunity to create a larger fortune and give even more Tzedakah than he would have had he parted with his money as soon as he earned his small fortune.
Interestingly, the Gemara (Sukkah 29b) writes that wealthy people are expected to pressure other Jews to properly observe Torah. Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. v’al she’hayah) explains that people will listen to wealthy individuals since people fear their power. This benefit is lost if one subscribes to Rav Aviner’s approach to the wealthy foregoing their wealth.
Moreover, Rav Kook (and Nedarim 80b) requires sacrificing one’s wealth to save the lives of poor individuals but does not make such a demand to meet the poor’s essential needs. The Chafeitz Chaim ruled that only the lives of poor individuals enjoy priority over the rich man’s wealth, but the “essential needs” of a poor man do not enjoy such priority. One may lead a long and healthy life as a poor individual without the necessity of having his standard of living raised to that of the middle class. If he is industrious and wise (and the beneficiary of some heavenly assistance), the poor man can raise himself to the middle class and beyond without the benefit of charity.
The Load is According to One’s Abilities
The Gemara (Ketubot 66b and 67a) records how a wealthy individual named Nakdimon Ben Gurion suffered greatly as a result of his having given insufficient funds to Tzedakah. The Gemara explains that he did give some Tzedakah but not enough for those blessed with his level of wealth. The Gemara cites a folk saying that expresses this point and states, “The stronger the camel the more one loads upon it.” The analogy is that the greater the ability of the individual, the more wealth Hashem bestows upon him. Thus, Hashem blesses with wealth in proportion to one’s potential. Thus, the attainment of wealth should be viewed as a message from Hashem that He expects the beneficiary to use his wealth in part to accomplish great things for his community.
Mainstream Halachic practice and opinion does not subscribe to the extreme ruling of Rav Aviner. However, there is a troubling phenomenon that seems to have motivated Rav Aviner’s ruling. Both in Israel and in the United States, widespread public expressions of wealth (itself a questionable phenomenon, see Kli Yakar to Devarim 2:3) are evident. These expressions are on a scale unheard of in earlier generations (a leading Israeli rabbi quietly commented to me at a particularly opulent wedding, “I do not think Achashveirosh’s palace and parties were this lavish!”). On the other hand, the communal and charitable needs of the community are growing tremendously (the unhealthy spurning of work by some Jews, though, is partly responsible for this phenomenon).
Upon seeing the many very large homes, lavish Kiddushim, and extravagant weddings, one wonders why many vitally important educational and other Jewish communal organizations are struggling to survive. One is left to ponder whether every wealthy member of our community is giving to the best of his ability. Rav Herschel Schachter, in a landmark speech delivered in Teaneck a few years ago, correctly noted that wealthy individuals are not obligated to support the lavish Pesach and Israel vacations taken by individuals of lesser means. Nonetheless, one wonders sometimes whether each wealthy individual is living up to what Hashem expects him to do.
While Rav Aviner’s ruling does not constitute normative Halachah, it should nonetheless motivate wealthy members of our community to consider if they are living up to what Hashem expects them to do with their wealth.
I thank my students in the contemporary Halachah Shiur of 5770 at Torah Academy of Bergen County, who contributed many ideas to this essay.