There are rich Jews and poor Jews, and a whole lot of them seesawing in between. There are doctors and tech entrepreneurs commanding high salaries, while the street-corner flower vendors and supermarket cashiers earn considerably less. How can one claim that wealth is open to all comers?
First of all, while it is natural to think that one’s profession is determinative of one’s wealth, our oral tradition rejects this view. Rabbi Meir teaches explicitly that one’s profession is not determinative:
For there is no profession in which there is not poverty and wealth, for poverty does not come from the profession, nor does wealth come from the profession. Rather, it all comes from one’s merit.
With enough life experience, one sees that there are physicians who struggle financially and couriers who prosper. But even if we embrace Rabbi Meir’s teaching, there is room to despair that we personally lack merit, or to quibble that many among the meritless appear to be quite well-to-do.
That being the case, how do we acquire merit? Rabbi Meir, in the same Mishnah, says a person should “pray to Him to Whom wealth and property belong.” Prayer is the correct starting place, as the Talmud teaches us that God created vegetation on the third day of creation, but it did not sprout from the earth until the first motzaei Shabbat [Saturday night, after the conclusion of the Sabbath] when Adam realized the importance of rain, prayed for it and God had mercy and let the rain fall. We learn from this that God desires prayer.
And yet prayer is a necessary but not sufficient condition for our material success, as the Talmud teaches:
“What should a person do to become wealthy?” He said to them, “He should increase his merchandise and conduct business faithfully.” They said to him, “Many have done so and weren’t successful!” “Rather a person should request mercy from Him to Whom wealth belongs, as it is written, ‘Mine is the silver and Mine is the gold.’” What does this come to teach? That one [commerce] without the other [prayer] is insufficient.
Our Torah sources have thus far established two principles that are essential for financial success: First, that we know that God is the source of wealth and it is to Him that we must turn to seek our sustenance, and second that we must make efforts of our own. These are core tenets of our emunah, and easy to accept. But…can the flower vendor really expect to become wealthy? In other words, does the ability to become wealthy really apply to everyone?
The answer is yes. The Rambam actually makes the process of wealth accumulation a part of his vast halachic code, the Mishneh Torah. Specifically, in the last four halachot of the fifth chapter of Hilchot Deot, the Rambam lays out the principles of financial planning. Addressing himself to the wise, as we are all meant to be, the Rambam writes:
A talmid chacham [wise student] should manage his finances judiciously. He should eat, drink and sustain his household according to his means and economic success. And he should not expend excessively.
This is what common folk wisdom calls “living within your means.” But wisdom is no longer so common. Calvin Coolidge, in his 1929 autobiography, praised this virtue, and embodied it. As president, he kept a lid on spending, and retired about a fourth of the federal debt. Today, U.S. federal spending and debt have reached epidemic proportions.
But governmental debt, important though that be, is not our topic. Our concern is at the individual household level, and there the data are not any more encouraging. According to Debt.org, the U.S. median household income reached just under $80,000 in the first quarter of 2021. To many observers, especially from less affluent countries, that would seem like “success.” Yet given an average U.S. household debt of $145,000, Americans on average have failed the Rambam’s first test of financial prudence. Indeed, the fiscal path of most people in “advanced” Western societies today is unsustainable.
Therein lies the significance of this educational undertaking, as we are all profoundly influenced by our surroundings. The Rambam himself stresses this point with the opening words of his next chapter: “A person’s nature is such that he is drawn in his habitual behaviors and deeds after his friends and companions and conducts himself according to the custom of the people of his city.” No wonder that those living in such company might be tempted to take on similar habits.
The Rambam “fleshes out” the idea of living within one’s means by discussing the eating of meat, which in his time was relatively expensive:
The Sages commanded as proper conduct, that a person only eat meat with an appetite, as it is said, “When your soul craves meat.” It is sufficient for a healthy person to eat meat weekly. But if he is rich enough to eat meat daily, he may eat.
The idea here is for wise people to desist from consuming expensive fare unthinkingly. When you really want to eat meat, you should do so. A Jew certainly has reason to eat meat at his Shabbat or holiday seudah, for instance. But to do so too frequently is not necessary to sustain your health and may cripple your finances.
In our own day, food is more affordable, but the principle applies all the same. It is commonplace for people to pick up a coffee before starting their day at the office. A venti cappuccino at Starbucks costs $5.45 in New York City and only 50 cents less in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There exists a whole financial planning literature on whether a daily purchased coffee habit bleeds one’s future retirement security. One popular columnist equated this habit over the course of a career with the loss of $1 million in retirement savings, adding she would never waste such money even though she could afford it; soberer calculations arrived at a loss of $150,000 in compounded investment returns over 40 years. But the Rambam has settled this debate: The average person should not indulge in extravagances, but someone who can afford to do so, may do so.
The Rambam concludes this halachah with the proper mindset a wise head of household should adopt:
The Sages commanded and said a person should always eat less than what befits his station, dress as befits his station and provide for his wife and children beyond what befits his station.
In our times, this sounds gallant, perhaps quaint. But the purpose of Hilchot Deot is to establish a framework of character traits that will enable a successful, contented life. The Rambam achieves that goal by stressing here, that one should not overly focus on himself. While he can achieve this goal through underconsumption, doing so should not come at the expense of his dignity, which is why his clothing expenses should fully match his capabilities. But supporting his wife and children is part of a Jewish man’s core mission in life, and should be guided by a spirit of graciousness.
We will examine the Rambam’s further advice in the coming chapters, as we lay our foundation for financial success. For now, the key takeaway – the cornerstone of our foundational financial structure – is that wealth building is not only possible at any income level but actually dictated by that level. We must start by living within our means, spurred out of concern for those who are financially dependent on us. The reward for such a lifestyle approach, as we shall come to see, is genuine contentment, and eventually, financial independence.
 Kiddushin 4:14.
 Chullin 60b, cited in Rashi, Bereishit 2:5.
 Niddah 70b.
 Chaggai 2:8.
 “Calvin Coolidge,” Wikipedia, accessed August 2, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvin_Coolidge
 Bill Fay, “Demographics of Debt,” Debt.org, February 23, 2022, https://www.debt.org/faqs/americans-in-debt/demographics/
 Deot 6:1.
 Devarim 12:20.
 Alessandra Malito, “The real math of coffee and your retirement,” MarketWatch, June 19, 2019, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-real-math-of-coffee-and-your-retirement-2019-06-18