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11 Av 5767 - July 26, 2007 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
The Rich Shall Not Exceed

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

Concerning expenditures involved with making simchos, may the latter increase. And even if Hashem has graced a person with wealth, he is advised to be modest and restrained with his money, and whoever trains himself in the practice of self sufficiency, and suffices with little, is blessed with years that are wholly good — writes the Pele Yoeitz. "One must attempt to reduce luxuries which erode the power of Jewry and lead to toil and trouble and wasted energy without end" — from the takonos to the Knessiyah Gedolah, signed by Maran HaRav Chaim of Brisk ztzvk'l. "If a person builds his home on the foundation of luxuries — the entire house will be defective" — from the words HaRav Arye Leib Shteinman shlita. About the Vaad Arbaa Arotzos * Regarding the regulations of the various communities * What is the definition of luxuries in Halochoh and Mussar? *

By A. Re'eim

A responsa of the Bach (Siman 73), which is directed to the Jewish communal trustees (parnossim) who headed the Vaad Arba Arotozos, deals with the big trade fair which took place in Lublin. Very wealthy businessmen and tradesmen would gather here, among them the parnossim of the various communities throughout Europe, which is why the Vaad chose precisely this location to make their meetings and conventions. The parnossim of Poland and Russia met together with the gedolei hador and discussed the current problems facing Jewry. These parnossim were so devoted to their Jewish brethren that they often gave away all their money and risked their very lives for their people.

Over four hundred years ago, an umbrella organization was created, unifying the Jews of Russia, Poland and Lithuania through representatives that formed the Vaad Arbaa Arotzos, which was recognized by the government. In his work, Nesivos Olom, Nesiv Loshon 89), the Maharal tells of a ruling passed by the rabbonim of this Committee.

Vaad Arab Arotzos and its Functions and Activities

The name "Vaad Arbaa Arotzos" was coined in 5383 when the communities of Lithuania initiated this supernal group. The four countries included Russia, Vohlein, Poland-major and Poland-minor. Vohlein embraced Ludmir, Luzak, Berditchov, Chernowitz, Zhitomir and other districts.

Poland-major stretched from Posen till Warsaw and Poland- minor encompassed Cracow, Lublin, Ostrovtza. The activities of the Vaad were varied and many, including intercession in preventing or defending blood libels, exempting Torah scholars from taxes, mediating quarrels between communities, appointing rabbis, providing approbations for Torah works, providing for orphans, supervising correct weights and measures, instituting amendments regulating the ostentation of gold and silver vessels, dealing with matters of Kashrus and shechitah and others.

Among the gedolei Torah who stood at the head of the Vaad we find: R' Mordechai Yaffe, author of Levush [Mordechai]; the Maharsha; the Maharam Lublin; the Kli Yokor; the Tvuos Shor; the Bach; the Sma; the Tosfos Yom Tov, the Taz, the Sheloh, the Megaleh Amukos and many others.

Every kehillah maintained its own official record, its Pinkas Hakehillah, in which a community secretary documented all of the activities, amendments and regulations, as well as the various customs in their particular community. Only select passages remain from these records, including the various takonos which were instituted at various times, for various reasons. These can be found in the responsa works of the rabbonim who served these communities during this period.

With the Gathering of the `Chiefs' of the Different Communities

In the pinkos-record of the Vaad Arbaa Arotzos dating back to 5419, it was instituted not to expend more money than was deemed necessary on affairs. According to the amendment agreed upon at the trade fair in Lublin, it was decided to implement this directive and guideline with full stringency. We find already in 5355 in Cracow an amendment to "be concerned for the financial resources of Jewry" and to forbid women from expending large sums for jewelry and attire. They specified what was permissible and what was forbidden with regards to such expenditure: both for men and women.

The Vaad record states as follows: "Insofar as it is a criminal offense to incur great expenses for wedding and bris milah festivities, it has been decided to categorically forbid making weddings on Shabbos, come what may, but only during weekdays. No more than a minyan of people are permitted to be invited to a seudas bris milah. The communal trustee appointed as parnas hachodesh [there was a rotation basis of parnossim] was to supervise that this was duly carried out and, in the case of infraction, to penalize the violator with a harsh punishment as one would a person who ate forbidden food."

On the 29th of Tammuz, 5433, it was recorded in the chronicles as follows: "Every festive meal from the wedding night and afterwards shall not exceed the number of one minyan altogether, even including the chosson himself and his accompaniment."

In the bylaws of Frankfurt-on-the-Maine on the 17th of Tammuz, 5475 we find: "The participants in a bris should not exceed the following: the sandak, mohel, av beis din and immediate family [krivei psulei eidus, as they are referred to], the chazon and shammosh. Similarly, the wedding feast should not exceed ten men outside of the av beis din, parnossim, dayonim, immediate family, chazzon and shammosh."

The Basis for the Objection to Ostentation and Luxuries

The kehillos presented three main grounds for their amendments: not to arouse envy; not to embarrass the poor and to make it easier for the poor. We find in the Maharsha (Pesochim 49a) that the Ten Tribes were exiled first because they pursued material pleasures and comforts to an exessive degree.

We do not find regulations of this kind passed during the period of the geonim but there are references to the deletrious effects which can result from excessive expenditures. In the communities of the Rhine valley area, called acrostically Kehillos ShUM [Speyer, Worms, Mainz], we find in the year 5583 an enactment forbidding "a person, neither man nor woman, [to] make any festive celebration without warranted reason."

In Italy, in 5178, they instituted a bylaw limiting expensive clothing "so as to subdue our hearts and for the sake of walking modestly with Hashem our G-d and refraining from being visibly showy in the eyes of the gentiles." Signed at the head of the list was R' Menachem of Racanati.

Amendments such as these were promulgated in communities in Spain in 5192, as well as in Berlin in 5492. "After we have seen the squandering of money taking place here in our communities regarding extravagant banquets which people hold for no particular reason, inviting crowds of people without limitation!" they saw fit to institute regulations and limitations.

The city of Prague also accepted upon itself many such takonos in 5505, the list of signatures being headed by the godol hador, the Noda BiYehuda. Their purpose was: "To remove the opulence, which is the father of poverty, and in order to fend off the enemy and avenger, to eliminate all hatred and envy and avoid being flamboyant in the eyes of the nobility of the land." In one of his speeches, Rabbenu the Noda BiYehuda complains, "And the Jews attired in aristocratic raiment cause the nobility to impress heavy taxes and demand tributes from us" (Drushei Hatzalach, 30.

In 5646, the community of Pietrokov passed regulations against luxuries. "We, the signators, having gathered to assess the situation in our community, where luxury and the latest mode [!] have found pathways into the hearts of our townspeople with widespread intensity and power, for which fortunes are being squandered — to live up to the latest craze in fullest detail, even though they may be living in dire poverty, without food and clothing, which threatens to be our downfall— We have agreed amongst ourselves to make takonos! The luxury and the wantonness eats away at our flesh, and the safeguards of modesty and Mussar have fully breached the embankment of Jewry. Woe unto us if we cannot help but cry: "Lukus, Lukus! For how much longer shall you consume the resources of Jewry in their time of poverty!"

An illuminating takonoh was passed in Fez, Morocco, in 5458 after the rabbis of the country realized that "the gates of influence have almost all been sealed, and the majority of families with young girls are in a dilemma, due to the terrible custom which has prevailed of late where they cannot get married without a very sizable dowry, with added gold, silver and precious stoneså Therefore, have we come to institute and decree that under no circumstances shall there be an agreement of adding anything beyond the dowry itself."

In the pamphlet, "Maskil el Dal" paragraph 6, it is explained that expenditures for luxuries cause people to engage in the pursuit of more and more money, to the point that one continually imagines that he does not have enough means to keep the mitzvos properly since he has become impoverished by his personal lavishness.

The Rich Shall Not Exceed!

When donations were collected for the building of the Mishkan, Israel was commanded to give half a shekel, each person respectively. "The rich shall not exceed and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel." Is it truly a difficult thing for a rich man to refrain from giving more than is requested? Are not rich people stingy by nature? Is this not precisely what their evil inclination wants?

Maran the Mashgiach of Mir, HaRav Yeruchom Levovitz ztzvk'l said that when they collected money for the building of the Mishkan and the treasurers refused to accept a penny more than the required half shekel, this was considered a rebuff, an insult. But the Torah said, in so many words, "Don't come to the Sanctuary with your wealth. Don't flaunt your riches in the House of Hashem. Here you are equivalent to the pauper." This policy was important enough to warrant a special commandment in the Torah to show that all are equal in the eyes of Hashem. Only in this manner can the Shechinah deign to reside in the midst of the people.

HaRav Uri Weisblum shlita writes an expansion of this concept in his work, "He'oras Haderech." He cites the words of the Sforno at the beginning of Pekudei, "So that the budget and size of the Sanctuary not be the reason for the reposing of the Shechinah in the midst of Jewry. Hashem desires those who fear Him devotedly, and their good deeds, as the basis for His dwelling in their midst."

A person should not flaunt his riches. It is not the actual splendid structure that Hashem wants and desires as a resting place for His glory. And when a person builds his own home, he does not need an ostentatious wedding, a brass band, a stunning spread for the aufruf. These actually constitute reasons for banishing the Shechinah from a home, G- d forbid. Hashem desires, rather, those who fear and love Him devoutly, and their worthy deeds, and in their midst will He chose to dwell.

The Destruction that Came as a Result of the Pursuit of Luxuries

HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman shlita writes in a letter: "It has become the custom for families to make an extravagant sheva brochos for a new couple every single night, as if it is an ironclad obligation. Families incur great debts for this and are embarrassed not to make them. It should be known and recognized, however, that there is no such requirement to make a meal that requires sheva brochos, whereas there is a prohibition to borrow money when a person has no means or ways to pay back the loan. A person reasons that he can alternate from one gemach to another to keep afloat. But once a person begins doing this, he consumes all of his time and energies and has none left for the study of Torah."

In an additional letter, he writes: "There are some specific fundamental values which the novi enumerates as requirements on our part. One of them is to `walk in modesty with Hashem." This applies to every person. In particular, a person should know how to build his home. It must be built upon the standard of hatzneia leches, of reserve, reticence, simplicity bordering on austerity, no frills or extraneous things, only the basics.

"Since primarily it is the Jewish daughter who has a major role in building the home, they should studiously pursue simplicity and shun luxuries, since the latter consumes a person, erodes him, and is the cause for all kinds of woes. For if a person builds his home on a basis of comforts in every area, things which are not necessary, then that home will be ruined, defective in one way or another. One should begin with a solid principle of no-frills, for this is the meaning of `walking modestly with Hashem,'" concludes HaRav Aharon Leib.

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