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Diminishing Returns: Ethics of the Fathers, 4:12

July 17, 2011 | by Rabbi Yonason Goldson

How much is enough?

Rabbi Meir says: Minimize your business activities and engage in Torah study. Be of humble spirit before every person. If you neglect Torah study, you will find many causes to neglect it; but if you toil in Torah, God has ample reward to give you.

(Ethics of Fathers 4:12)

“Where, oh where, is that ultimate child?” lamented Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. “Where is the child that is driving the whole world insane?”

The rabbi went on to explain how, in his youth, he saw men working their lives away, leaving no time for themselves, no time for the families, and no time for a relationship with God. “Why do you work so hard?” he asked one of these men, “if you already have all you need to live comfortably?”

Invariably, the man would reply: “I am not working for myself; I am working for my son, so that he will never have to worry about having enough.”

Years went by, and the son became an adult who worked hard every moment of his life. “I am not working for myself,” the man explained. “I am working for my son.”

“And so it goes, from one generation,” the rabbi said, sadly. “But where is that ultimate child, for whom the whole world has been working all these countless generations? When will this child finally arrive to enjoy the fruit of so much labor?”

Not much has changed, apparently, since the times of the rabbi of Peshischa. How many of us toil in pursuit of greater and greater wealth, excusing our compulsiveness as concern for the welfare of our children?


Not much has changed since the days of our sages, either.

Expanding upon his words in the mishna quoted above, Rabbi Meir teaches elsewhere in the Talmud that, instead of preparing a child for the most lucrative profession possible,

a person should try to train his son in a vocation that is honest and simple – all the time praying to the One to Whom all wealth and property belongs. There is no trade that does not have both wealthy and poor practitioners. It is not the career that gives one wealth or poverty; rather a person’s wealth is granted to him according to his merits.

(Kiddushin 82a)

If Rabbi Meir’s outlook clashes with contemporary values, the world view expounded by Rabbi Tachlifa seems even more extreme: “All of a person’s income is determined for him yearly, on Rosh Hashanah” (Beitzah 16a). If so, Rabbi Meir’s formulation of “minimizing” business appears insufficient. Indeed, even according to Rabbi Meir himself, if all livelihood is bestowed by the Almighty in proportion to good deeds, why should any of us work at all? Are we not better off closing our businesses and waiting for God to shower us with riches? Are we not showing a lack of trust in heaven by laboring for that which has already been set aside for us?

The answer, of course, is no. But why not?

The sages tell us that wealth is among the things decreed by fate – or, possibly, by natural design (Moed Katan 28a). This means that no person will ever make himself richer by increasing his hours at work, any more than attaching a second spigot to a water urn will double his reservoir of hot water. Nevertheless, without investing a reasonable amount of time, energy, and diligence in the process of supporting himself and his family, one will not activate the mechanism through which the Almighty’s blessings flow into this world.

Paradoxically, diligent and moderate effort may indeed produce increased success. For although a second spigot won’t increase the amount of available water, too narrow a faucet will restrict access to the water inside the urn. This is why Rabbi Meir advises us to minimize work, not to give up work altogether. Our challenge is to determine how much effort – and what kind of effort – is proper and necessary.


Although most of us spend a disproportionate amount of time wishing we were wealthier, both the pursuit and attainment of wealth can easily become more of a distraction than an asset. This should be obvious: some rich people are happy and some are unhappy; some poor people are happy and some are unhappy. Clearly, wealth is not the determinant of happiness.

Rabbi Meir warns against the fallacy of regarding wealth as a goal unto itself; rather, we should see wealth as a tool, one that is granted “according to our merits.” Just as an employer entrusts an expensive piece of equipment only to a worker who has demonstrated competence in its use, so too is the Almighty more likely to entrust wealth into the hands of those who will use it responsibly, not merely for their own pleasure and aggrandizement. Therefore, Rabbi Meir cautions us to be “humble of spirit” and accord the same level of respect to every person no matter what his station, lest we become invested in the misconception that wealth is the measure of greatness.

Responsible use of wealth includes eschewing an extravagant life style, supporting the poor and of Torah institutions, and using one’s resources and influence to benefit others through community involvement. But it also includes using freedom from the pressures of earning a living to devote extra time to Torah study.

If we allow material prosperity to become our paramount goal, if we convince ourselves that longer hours and harder work will reward us with greater wealth, then we will concoct countless excuses for not making time to study Torah. By doing so, Rabbi Meir tells us, demands upon our time will sprout up like weeds upon an untended field, and all we hoped to gain through added effort will be lost in futile preoccupation.

But if we see wealth as a means and not as an end, as a tool to be used in pursuit of a higher purpose, then we will discover that we can be equally content without the clutter of the material world. And then, finding ourselves free to devote more time to the study of Torah, we will discover the blessing of a closer relationship with our Creator, which is itself the greatest reward of all.

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