When a mitzvah costs too much: Money, ownership and community

The holiday of Sukkot ended a month ago, and with it, millions of lulav and etrog sets worth hundreds of millions of dollars are cast aside, no longer of value.

In some ways, this is a powerful expression of the Jewish people’s love of our tradition. Just like a person might spend $60 on a beautiful bouquet of flowers to send to a friend, an act all the more precious because the flowers will hardly last beyond a week, we decide to spend our money on a gift for God, a gift all the more precious because its value fades after a week.

The rabbis viewed the etrog as a quintessential example of the choice to value mitzvot by spending money on them.  An extended midrash about spending money on the etrog extols the great rewards that come as a result of spending money on mitzvot in general, and in this vein recounts a provocative story of a particular rabbi who spent all of his assets in order to study Torah:

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba was escorting Rabbi Yohanan on a stroll from Tiberias to Sepphoris.  They got to a field and R. Yohanan said: “This field was mine but I sold it in order to merit Torah study.”  They got to a vineyard and R. Yohanan said: “This vineyard was mine but I sold it in order to merit Torah study.”  They got to an olive orchard and R. Yohanan said: “This orchard was mine but I sold it to merit Torah study.”  R. Hiyya began to cry.  “Why are you crying?” asked R. Yohanan.  He replied, “Because you have left nothing for your old age!”  (Vayikra Rabbah 30:1)

Yohanan explains that he has made a great deal in his eyes by selling off material wealth to invest in Torah – for he has exchanged something of limited value in order to acquire something of much greater and longer-lasting value.  We don’t know if R. Hiyya was satisfied by this answer – when R. Yohanan dies he is both extolled and mocked for depleting his wealth for the sake ofTorah. Though this story is obviously an extreme, the image of discarded, expensive etrogim post Sukkot can be a catalyst for us to probe the values behind our own spending habits.  Do we spend our resources on what we value most in this world?  How do we balance the goal of using resources for what we care about and the responsibility to cultivate resources, both for our own futures and for others?

At the same time, even as this mitzvah might encourage us to spend more of our money on mitzvot, it is also an opportunity to reflect upon how expensive it can be to perform a mitzvah.  The rabbis knew how expensive an etrog could be, and the expense became all the more exaggerated with the idea that each person should have their own set of the four species for the first day of Sukkot – multiplying the cost of the mitzvah by the number of adults in each household.  The luxury of devoting one’s resources to this mitzvah is not something that all Jews have been, or are, able to afford.

In the medieval period, in northern Europe, it was extremely difficult to find an etrog, and the cost could be exorbitant.  People simply couldn’t afford this mitzvah. Under these circumstances, the community came up with a creative solution:

The community has a custom, to buy an etrog in partnership – and we instruct them that each individual should give their portion as a gift on condition that it be returned… (Tosafot, Sukkah 41b)

In a time where people couldn’t afford this mitzvah on their own, members of the community contributed a small amount of money to jointly own one etrog.  But this partial ownership was not sufficient to do the mitzvah properly.  Each individual had to have full ownership of the etrog legally, to feel complete ownership over this mitzvah.  When it came time for each individual to shake the four species, everyone else had to “gift” their share of the etrog temporarily.  The resulting picture is a complex and beautiful interpretation of private ownership that defies a model of total autonomy.  No individual held complete ownership of the etrog independently, but every individual had complete ownership by virtue of the power of the gift.  Ownership was actually expressed through the act of giving, enabling another person to have complete ownership over the same object.  In this model, ownership doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want with something and be blind to others’ needs.  Ownership is intimately intertwined with acknowledging and responding to the needs of others.

This model of sharing an etrog in medieval Europe suggests that it takes both a network of support and creativity in halakhic interpretation for all people regardless of means to have a full sense of ownership and investment in mitzvot.  Unlike in this case where it seems like the community as a whole felt the financial burden of the mitzvah, in our own time it also isn’t always obvious to people with more resources how difficult it can be for people with fewer resources to participate in the Judaism they love, a Judaism that can have a hefty price tag.

What I am taking with me long after the beauty of the etrog has faded are two lessons.  One — that I be more aware of the values behind the ways I choose to spend money and build or use assets.  Two — that there are unimaginable possibilities of what we can accomplish in the Jewish community with whatever resources we have when we actually work together and fully respect everyone’s ownership and investment.

This January at Yeshivat Hadar’s winter learning seminar we will dedicate our bet midrash to tackling questions related to money and Torah in an open and honest shared community of conversation.  How much should we spend on mitzvot?  Is there such a thing as private ownership?  What is the Torah’s vision(s) of a just economy?  Join us to add your voice to the conversation.  

About the Author
Rabbi Aviva Richman is on the faculty of Mechon Hadar, an institute of advanced Jewish study in Manhattan, and is a PhD candidate at New York University writing on sexual coercion and consent in the Talmud.
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