Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Kislev 5767 - November 22, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Rabbi Meir Kessler: Don't Feel Poor, Feel Happy

by Rabbi Rafael Berlson

When is it permissible to take out a loan and when not? Why do observant people sometimes transgress halachos regarding money? Is a person allowed to intentionally choose a life of poverty if they won't feel spiritually rich? Rav Meir Kessler, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Sefer, deals with these questions on a daily basis. Here, he presents a halachic standpoint.


Before we begin answering questions, it is important to address one of the fundamental aspects of a home in which the father learns all day and isn't working.

The financial situation of the Israeli chareidi population has become a much-discussed topic in Israel. The topic's prominence is a result of the growth in the chareidi population due to their large family size on the one hand and of their poverty on the other. These two facts cause politicians and academics to express their concern that the growing chareidi population will be burden on the rest of the country. There are even those who are so "worried" about us that they've devised all sorts of plans.

One "expert" suggested establishing special schools for higher education specifically for chareidim. In order to encourage parents to enroll their children, he suggested that the government give extra money to the families of the children attending these schools. This is only one example of the malicious ideas proposed. It is obvious that these ideas wouldn't even be considered by chareidim.

The suggestions do, however, illustrate the financial situation of the chareidi population. The chareidi community is generally accepting of its financial situation, as most of today's avreichim come from families where their fathers, and possibly their grandfathers, learned.

People have generally become accustomed to dealing with the difficulties associated with poverty. While poverty is becoming to a Jewish home (Chagigah), it is more difficult to bear inside the house than fifty lashes (Bovo Basra). The gemora cites Iyov's friends as a proof. They told Iyov that his suffering was not so bad as he hadn't been hit with poverty. The contradiction is apparent: On the one hand, poverty is proper for a Jewish home. While on the other, it is worse than all of Iyov's torment!

The explanation is that there is a kind of poverty that isn't felt within the home. It isn't a constant companion, though it exists. If you enter such a house, you would see that the atmosphere is a happy one, that the family has bitochon and that the house was full of life. This is the kind of poverty that is becoming for a Jewish home.

The other type of poverty, however, creates a terrible atmosphere in the home and it truly is unbearable. The latter is worse than all of Iyov's suffering. That is why poverty felt inside the house is terrible.

Every person who has chosen to live a life of poverty must make sure that his house won't become an unhappy place due to a lack of material possessions. He must ensure that the atmosphere in his home will be one of wealth as his family will be content with what they have!


When is it permissible to accept a loan and when not?

There are two types of permissible loans. The standard type is for someone who needs funds in order to stabilize his business. When the business becomes profitable, he will use the profits to pay back the loan. The second type of loan is for someone who needs to borrow money in order to attend to his most basic needs. This type of loan is permissible even when a person doesn't know how he will repay it since it falls under the category of tzedokoh. (Loans provided in order to enable a person to establish a business are not considered tzedokoh.)

The aforementioned applies to one-time needs such as unexpected expenses or situations in which salaries have been delayed, for example.

However when people just become accustomed to taking loans even without a special reason, they tend to spend recklessly. They say to themselves that it really doesn't matter how much they spend, as they'll need to borrow more money anyway. That's how people become used to living without a budget; that's when they begin to buy more than the essential minimum. When one becomes habituated to borrowing money for necessary expenditures, he'll soon borrow money for luxuries, also.

Sometimes people take out loans in order to expand their apartments or refurnish them. This is generally not a valid reason to go into heavy debt without having a clear plan as to how to realistically repay the money. If it weren't for gemachim, people would generally refrain from entering into debt for these types of expenditures. It is only because the gemachim make it relatively easy to borrow money that people avail themselves of the opportunity.

Are there situations in which it is not a mitzvah to lend people money?

When a person requests money for a nonessential purpose and he has no realistic means of repaying the debt without borrowing money from another source, then it is not a mitzvah to lend him money. The reason to lend people money is to help the borrower. In a situation where the person has no method of repaying the loan, one isn't really making their life easier but more stressful, as they'll just have to figure out another way to borrow money to repay the first loan.

Today there are a number of organizations which help people free themselves of debt. They teach people how to manage their finances and to save money. They have helped a large number of families that were on the verge of a financial crisis. These families discovered that they really have more money than they previously thought since they learned how to reduce their expenditures and to save money. Since they stopped running around trying to borrow money they had more time and energy to devote themselves to earning additional income.

In many cases, the extended family even steps in to help their relatives once they see that their family is taking drastic steps to independently improve their financial situation. Most importantly, once people break the cycle of borrowing money, they learn to live within their means. That's how their lives change drastically. We have seen dozens of these families solve their financial problems!

Chazal teach us (Eruvin 41a) that there are three types of people who will never see Gehennom: those who suffer from poverty, those who have problems with digestion, and those who have problems with creditors (see Rashi there). We learn from here that there is no advantage to exchanging the suffering of poverty for the suffering of dealing with creditors since it just exchanges one set of suffering for an equivalent set of suffering.

The real solution is to make a real change in one's financial outlook and to free oneself of debt. Not only isn't it good to lend to people who chronically borrow money, it's forbidden.

What are the permissible ways to force someone to repay a debt against his will?

Everything must be done according to halochoh as instructed by a beis din. Generally, it is forbidden to pressure someone if they don't have the means to repay the debt. However, if the borrower has assets such as an apartment, it is permissible to force him to sell his apartment in order to pay. In such cases, the borrower is allowed to keep only the minimum necessary for his immediate needs.

How is it possible that otherwise very observant people fail to abide by all of the monetary halochos?

The gemora in Bovo Basra (165a) says that most people stumble over some sort of theft and a minority over some sort of arayos. The Rashbam explains that most people are suspect of being tempted and perhaps succumbing by theft and related illicit activities.

When a person borrows money, he intends to repay it. However, when the time arrives to repay the debt and he doesn't have the funds, the person justifies his inability to pay by saying that he is incapable and therefore excused from his obligation. This explains why people are not so careful in this area.

Rav Yisroel Salanter refused to be alone in a room with money that didn't belong to him unless it was counted beforehand. When questioned, he responded that we see in issues of arayos, even though Chazal said that only a minority are suspect but nonetheless Chazal decreed that one should not be alone in a situation in which arayos are possible, since according to Chazal most are suspected of petty stealing there is all the more reason not to remain alone with someone else's money.

Is a person allowed to intentionally impoverish himself without a rich spiritual life in return? Isn't it dangerous?

As it says in Mishlei (30:9), "Lest I become impoverished and steal." Poverty is certainly dangerous as its problems can damage other aspects of one's spiritual life. There is a difference, however, in this area between people who were born into families lacking money and people who were accustomed to a better material lifestyle. The gedolim advise newly observant people not to give up their jobs for this reason. Rav Shach zt'l would quote the Meshech Chochmoh (Parshas Nitzovim) who says this.

In other words, it is not enough to strengthen oneself in bitochon in order to be capable of withstanding the dangers of poverty. One must also have been raised in such circumstances to be able to really accept such a lifestyle.

Is there a reasonable solution to the terrible housing problem?

As of now there isn't a solution to this very difficult problem unless a real change is made. I have nothing more to add at this time.

Kiryat Sefer is known as a city of Torah. The city's residents need financial support, however, and what's available is inadequate.

Boruch Hashem the number of charities offering aid to these families has grown. While today's situation is truly amazing, it is inadequate compared to the current needs of the growing population. Just as the number of people sitting and learning has grown drastically, there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of wealthy religious people donating money to chareidim in Israel. The more that the wealthy donate, the wealthier they become. It's astounding.

How can you change a city's standards? Is the rav of a city able to forbid luxuries in the town?

From time to time the gedolim meet to set standards that will help people that feel that they have to keep up with society's norms. Today's aufrufs and bar mitzvas would be an example of unnecessary spending. On the other hand, it is important not to hurt the bar mitzvah boys who have already become used to a certain standard. Setting standards requires a lot of forethought and care.

There is one topic that must be discussed and dealt with and that is the need to improve one's home. In many cases, people wouldn't have felt a need to redo their apartments if not for social pressure. This is especially true in communities like ours where there is a large number of young people living together. It would be definitely worthwhile to do something to curtail this phenomenon.

Do you have advice that can help people deal with financial difficulties?

Dealing with financial difficulties depends primarily on how one views the situation. If a person feels that his life in this world is temporary, it will obviously be easier for him to deal with the problem. The truth is that we really are here temporarily on our path to the World of Eternity.

This outlook might sound like it is appropriate only for people who have achieved a certain exalted spiritual level. The truth is, however, that it is not beyond any of us. Anyone who attempts to adopt this view on a daily basis can attest to it. This isn't theory; it is extremely practical advice and it makes life a lot easier.

I heard a story about a person who boarded a train for a trip that would last several hours. As soon as he sat down, he took a painting out of his bag and a curtain for the window. His fellow passengers smiled at him condescendingly. `But isn't there too much sun in the train car which the curtain could block?' you might ask. `What could be bad about looking at a beautiful picture during one's travels?' The answer is simple: Everyone understands that a trip lasting merely a few hours doesn't require such amenities. When we compare our time in this world with our time in the Next World, we too will see that our lives here are short just like the train ride.

Of course we always have to strengthen our trust in G-d. The Brisker Rov received a large amount of money when he got married which was subsequently lost. The Rov said that while he lost a large fortune, he gained the bitochon described in Chovos Halevovos. If you learn Sha'ar Habitochon with your family, there is no doubt that your life will look different. First and foremost because trust in G-d creates a feeling of calm and tranquility as well as bringing Divine help.

HaRav Shach, zt'l: Condemning Luxuries

B"H, Nisan, 5736 (1976)

I have been thinking for a long time that it is particularly relevant to denounce in writing the incredible waste of money that has become prevalent in the last several years. These are unnecessary expenditures for simchas such as weddings, engagement celebrations and bar mitzvas, etc., Despite the fact that these events are mitzvas one is not obligated to spend more money than he has available in order to fulfill these mitzvas and especially not to enter into exorbitant debts. No one knows how much suffering is caused to the parents as a result of this overspending.

In previous times, when Torah and mitzvos were more precious to people than they are now, the gedolim still saw fit to limit the community's expenditures as explained in the sefer called Lomoh Tisro'u. I therefore say that he who has compiled these regulations of previous generations has done well and it is a timely thing, so that people may look and take measures to protect themselves and to limit their unnecessary spending. Their money is precious to tzaddikim since they do not steal. Each person is obligated to be among the first to act for the sake of this mitzvah and then others shall learn from him and copy his example.

HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkovitz, Shlita: Without Luxuries and Without Pleasures

It's worthwhile mentioning the story about the wife of one of the gedolim who paid her grandson a visit in his apartment after his wedding. The grandson decided to show his grandmother his beautiful apartment and the elegant furniture in order to make her happy. When the grandmother saw her grandson's new home, she informed him that while it was indeed beautiful, this was not the way to become a Torah leader. In order to become a giant in Torah you have to understand that you have to live a life devoid of luxuries and pleasures.

We may not have attained the level of Rabbeinu Hakodosh who said that he never enjoyed this world, but we must understand that it is important to manage only with what we need for our physical life in terms of food and clothing. We must ensure that we will not be drawn to the culture and values of the street around us. Our homes must be carefully insulated from anything that might cause bitul Torah including newspapers (chareidi publications included) and especially the general media and politics.

We must attempt to maintain the same atmosphere at home as existed sixty years ago when there wasn't such an emphasis on gashmiyus in the surrounding culture. With this in mind, may you merit to build a home al taharas hakodesh with pleasure and happiness as an extension of the simchah that you have now, understanding that there is nothing that can upset the path to reaching the desired goal that Hakodosh Boruch Hu asks of us, and may you always have nachas and brochoh. (Told at a Sheva Brochos, 5744.)

Rav Wolbe, zt'l: Maybe We are to Blame

The period of transferring yeshivos to Eretz Yisroel has come to a close. Each institution has been established in its own building, some of them quite elaborate. There still remains a lot of work to be done, however, in order to improve the yeshivos and in order to create Geonei Eretz, knowledgeable, innovators, poskim of halochos, as well as great educators.

The Chazon Ish wrote: "There is great tumult inside the beis medrash." There are those who are searching for the correct path, and there are also those who do not search [resulting in] potential that did not develop as it could have. The foundation upon which the Chazon Ish built our generation is beginning to collapse. He strove to educate a generation of women willing to sacrifice themselves — to become teachers and kindergarten teachers and to live modestly in order for their husbands to dedicate themselves completely to growing in Torah. A desire for luxuries has come — for spacious apartments elegantly furnished — and it has stolen the peace from the homes of many avreichim as they are preoccupied with finding loans in order to repay their debts. Seminary graduates are once again not sure that they will be able to find a job, either. Who knows? Maybe we are to blame for the current situation, as we have wasted the Chazon Ish's precious legacy in our search for comfort and luxuries! Be that as it may, we can feel it tangibly that a new era is beginning. Who will be the architect of this new period, responsible for building so that Torah will be in faithful hands? (Excerpt from the article Yemei Harotzon.)


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