Values, Prosperity and the Talmud: Business Lessons from the Ancient Rabbis



"The ancient wisdom of the Talmud is as relevant today as it was 1,500 years ago, and its advice about business both tactical and ethical is as applicable to our high-tech world as it was to their world of trading mules and buying olives."
?'Alan M. Dershowitz Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Harvard Law School

"For too long we've separated business from religion and in so doing we've thrown the baby out with the bath water. Can ...

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Values, Prosperity, and the Talmud: Business Lessons from the Ancient Rabbis

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"The ancient wisdom of the Talmud is as relevant today as it was 1,500 years ago, and its advice about business both tactical and ethical is as applicable to our high-tech world as it was to their world of trading mules and buying olives."
?'Alan M. Dershowitz Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Harvard Law School

"For too long we've separated business from religion and in so doing we've thrown the baby out with the bath water. Can religion be both relevant and use the accumulated wealth of its wisdom to be of service to business? Yes! There is a gold mine in religion for business. Come savor some of the wonderful nuggets in this book."
Martin Rutte Coauthor, Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work President, Livelihood

"Gaining perspective is essential to learning. Larry Kahaner provides the reader perspective from an ancient tradition that has a surprisingly modern relevance. This well-written and cogently organized book gives the reader access to the ethical foundations of the Judeo-Christian tradition, reminding us that business ethics is not the result of Enron, but a continuing concern about society and the human condition."
Stuart C. Gilman President, The Ethics Resource Center

"At a time of ethical crises and global uncertainty we need leaders who blend the best of business, psychology, and spirituality. Learn the lessons of values-based management from the ancient rabbis in this thoughtful, wise guidebook. Good is good, and evil is evil; the principles still apply today."
Bob Rosen CEO, Healthy Companies International and bestselling author of Global Literacies

"An interesting and useful prescription for modern behavior personal and corporate?'from a very old and, for many, unfamiliar source. The wisdom and ethical guidance of those early rabbis is as relevant today as it was fifteen centuries ago."
Mike Birck Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Tellabs

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471444411
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 8/8/2003
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,436,709
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

LARRY KAHANER is an award-winning journalist, lecturer, and consultant, and the author of nine books that have been translated into a dozen languages. He is a former Washington staff correspondent for BusinessWeek, reporter for Knight-Ridder newspapers and a founding editor of Communications Daily. He currently is Washington Editor of Fleet Owner magazine. He has written for InformationWeek, the Christian Science Monitor, the International Herald Tribune, the European, and Management Technology. He has been a guest on many shows including Larry King Live!, CNBC's Management Today, NPR's All Things Considered, and the Motley Fool Radio Show.
For more information go to or contact the author at

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Values, Prosperity, and the Talmud

Business Lessons from the Ancient Rabbis

By Larry Kahaner

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2003

Larry Kahaner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-471-44441-3

Chapter One

The Spirituality of Money

Who is wealthy? One who derives inner peace from his fortune.

Some religions reject the love of money, contending that it is the root
of all evil. Some go so far as to say that poverty is a route to holiness and
scarcity is a road to sanctity. The Talmudic rabbis' attitude, in contrast,
is that money and wealth can be positive forces.

Two conditions must be met for money to be a positive force, however.
First, we must use our wealth in a responsible way, and, second, we
must understand that wealth is not an indication of our inner worth.
We are merely stewards of the wealth bestowed upon us while we are

Praying for Prosperity

In ancient times, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of
the year, the high priest blessed the congregation. His prayer was for
enough rain so the fields would yield a robust crop. He prayed that the
congregation would reap a large harvest, beyond what they would need
to feed themselves, so they could sell the surplus crops in themarketplace
and prosper financially.

The later Talmudic rabbis were somewhat troubled by the high
priest's approach. Why would he pray for financial prosperity instead
of, say, health, happiness, wisdom, or some other nonmaterialistic, spiritual

The high priest certainly wanted people to think about God and
their spirituality, but he knew that unless people had money, they could
not even begin to think about their spiritual health. If people were not
able to attain some measure of material comfort, their spiritual needs
would never be addressed.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said, "Where there is no money, there is
no learning." This is the literal translation, but the rabbis expanded it
to mean that unless people's stomachs are full, they cannot study, grow
spiritually, and do good deeds. The ultimate purpose of money, which
we'll see time and again in Talmudic thought, is to increase community
prosperity, provide employment, and allow people to grow and reach
their full potential.

There Is No Virtue in Poverty

The Talmudic rabbis recognized no virtue in poverty-intentional or
otherwise. They found nothing noble in people's becoming impoverished
by giving away their money, no matter how worthy the cause. By
Halakic law (Halakah are Talmudic passages concerning law and legal
subjects), Jews are forbidden to give away their fortunes and become
poor. Contrast this with Matthew 19:21 in the King James Version of
the Christian Bible, which tells people, "Sell what you have and give to
the poor." This is not to suggest that the Gospel of Matthew is wrong
or misguided, but it shows that Judaism takes a different approach than
many other religions. Some Buddhists, for example, believe that a true
connection to the spiritual realm comes as a result of a paucity of possessions.

Interestingly, the ancient rabbis often suggested that rich people
obviously were more righteous than others because they had been
blessed with wealth. Naturally, this observation didn't always hold true
because a wealthy person's righteousness depended on how he spent
his money-on whether he did good deeds with it. Nonetheless, in
ancient times rich people were often revered in Jewish communities
not because of their wealth, per se, but because they were thought to be
blessed, until shown to be otherwise.

Judaism considers donating one-twentieth to one-tenth of your
wealth virtuous, but giving more of your estate is considered excessive
unless you are very wealthy (although it's acceptable to bequeath an
entire estate prior to your death). Taking care of your own needs and
those of your family takes priority.

The story of Job is a classic Bible tale about a righteous, God-fearing,
wealthy man, and it reveals the horrors of being poor. The story suggests
that Job was wealthy because he was a good person and thus was
rewarded by God. Satan challenges God, asking whether Job would still
praise him if he were poor and had life-threatening diseases. God takes
the challenge and turns Job's life upside down, giving him boils and sores
and thrusting him into poverty. Job's wife and others tell him to renounce
God, but Job refuses, despite his afflictions.

In the end, Job becomes twice as wealthy as he had been, but during
an interchange we hear Job discussing how important money is to
him. God asks Job, "Which would you prefer, poverty or afflictions?"
Job responds, "I would rather accept all the afflictions of the world, but
not poverty." It's interesting to see that, faced with physical ills and
even death, Job would prefer these choices over poverty because he
understood that without some amount of money, his life and the lives
of his family members would be miserable.

The Talmudic rabbis had a great personal interest in discussing
poverty because so many of them were relatively poor. Passages from
the Talmud frequently reflect this, for example: "A poor man's life is no
life," "Poverty deprives a man of his creator," and "A poor man is like
one dead." Another passage states: "Nothing in the universe is worse
than poverty. It is the most terrible of sufferings. A person oppressed by
poverty is like someone who carries on his shoulders the weight of the
world's sufferings. If all the pain and all the suffering of this world were
placed on one side of the scale and poverty on the other, the balance
would tilt toward poverty."

The Talmudic rabbis examined not only how poverty caused people
to lose sight of their creator and their spiritual side, but also how it
can undermine self-esteem and self-confidence, both of which are
necessary for personal and business success. Rabbi Yohannan and
Rabbi Eleazer said that as soon as a man became dependent on others
for his sustenance, his face would change as many colors as a kerum.
The kerum, an African bird, changes hue depending on how the sun
hits it. In analogous fashion, a poverty-stricken man is buffeted by
events around him, eventually losing control of his life, his family, and
his career.

Is It Good to Be Wealthy?

If poverty is to be avoided, is wealth to be sought? This issue was
thornier for the Talmudic rabbis. Although being rich was considered
better than being poor, being wealthy entails many challenges, including
greater obligations and loftier responsibilities. "The more possessions,
the more anxiety," Hillel noted.

First, it's essential to understand how Judaism regards ownership.
Judaism provides for a right to property and protection for that property,
but it does not accept the idea of absolute and unlimited ownership.
Wealth, consisting of both money and property, does not belong to
the individual; it belongs to God. People are stewards, or trustees, of
that wealth.

Rabbi Akiva regarded wealth as a long-term debt to God, which is
paid off by living a righteous life. He said, "Everything is given as a
pledge, and a net is spread for all the living. The shop is open and the
shopkeeper extends credit. The ledger is open and the hand writes. Whoever
wishes to borrow may come and borrow. The collectors make their
appointed rounds daily and take payment from man, whether he knows it
or not. The judgment is the judgment of truth and everything is prepared
for the banquet." In this passage, God is the shopkeeper who has loaned
us money, our businesses, our lives-everything. In return, the debtor
owes the Almighty a righteous life. Our days on earth are limited, and we
are expected to settle our accounts before we die. The payment should
not come at the last minute, either, but through a life of good deeds.

In this vein, wealthy people are expected to act as trustees for their
riches and use this wealth to alleviate suffering. This does not mean
that wealth should be redistributed so that all people become financially
equal. On the contrary, we must accept that there will always be
both rich and poor in the world. For the rabbis, this inevitable fact of
life makes charity imperative.

There's an Chasidic story about a wealthy businessman who
decided to retire. (Chasids, a sect of Jewish mystics established in
Poland about 1750, are characterized by religious zeal and a spirit of
prayer, joy, and charity.) He wanted to close his factory, which was operating
profitably, and spend the rest of his life studying the Talmud. He
told the local rabbi about his plans, and he expected the rabbi to applaud
his choice to become a man of great Talmudic wisdom. Instead, the
rabbi was dismayed at the man's decision and asked, "What will happen
to all the workers you employ? How will they feed their families?" The
rabbi explained to the factory owner that perhaps God gave him this
wealth so that he would act as its trustee, and thus he had a moral obligation
to use it properly for the benefit of those in his community. His
job was to provide jobs.

Judaism proposes that, although wealth is a good and positive condition,
it cannot, in itself, bring happiness. The insatiable quest for
wealth that is evident all around us can become self-defeating and
destructive for those who become caught up in it.

In The Challenge of Wealth, the contemporary rabbi Meir Tamari
describes this challenge as the ability to understand that enough is
enough. The concept of "enough is enough" runs throughout Talmudic
thought and is crucial to the lesson that discusses overwork. People must
resist their natural inclination to accumulate more wealth than they
need because this increases the temptation to acquire money though
dishonest activities. Tamari explains, "Greed is enhanced and empowered
by man's perpetual fear of economic uncertainty. So we perpetually
seek to protect ourselves against the risk involved in the market and
in the human condition through legitimate means but also by immoral
ones." He adds that if people have faith that God will provide them sustenance,
then they will be released from the desire to seek more money
and property than they really need: "... it is this faith that allows people
to take the risks needed for entrepreneurial development, thus maintaining
the legitimate search for wealth within moral parameters."

Tamari's point is an important one because it forges the direct link
between spirituality and money that many of us seek.

Having faith in God's blessing of continual abundance frees people
from the belief that they must accumulate too much wealth or that they
must do so through immoral activity. If we truly believe that God offers
us abundance, then there is no need to steal or cheat to attain what we
want. There will be enough for us. On the other hand, if we believe that
the "big pie" is shrinking, then we will feel impelled to get our slice
quickly by whatever means necessary so we are not left out. Clearly,
this latter road can lead to illegal behavior and ultimate ruin.

We also must be certain that others do not suffer, either directly or
indirectly, because of our wealth. In his book The Kabbalah of Money,
Rabbi Nilton Bonder defines wealth in a unique way: "Let us define
wealth as the highest form of organization possible to the environment
in such a way that everything alive and everything essential to life exists
without scarcity. In other words, the more abundance we create for a
given human need, without generating the scarcity of another need, the

This definition reveals a connection between spirituality and
money that many of us have never considered because we often think
of money as the antithesis of spirituality. We tend to regard money as
being rooted in earthly matters, while spirituality exists on a higher
plane. However, this positive, spiritual view of money is validated when
the money is used to perform good deeds on earth and nobody is hurt
as a consequence of the quest for great wealth. If these and other criteria
are met, the seeking of wealth becomes a noble and divine pursuit.

Seeking a Balance

The ancient rabbis suggested that Jews are obligated to study the Torah
and the Talmud because this is a time-consuming activity and is therefore
time that will not be spent accumulating wealth. Thus, studying helps
people to achieve an equilibrium between accumulating money and
appreciating the other parts of life. Likewise, simply choosing to leave
the office at 5 P.M. rather than working late may help people develop
more balanced lives by allowing them more time with their families.

Tamari notes that seeking this balance is difficult, and his views echo
those of Rabbi Jonathan Eybeshitz, an eighteenth-century European
Talmudist who considered money one of the greatest trials and temptations
of life. This challenge has been particularly trying for Jews, suggested
Eybeshitz, because the religion does not preach that money is evil
or that worldly pleasures should be totally shunned. In fact, one passage
from the Talmud states that Jews will be held accountable for the pleasures
in life in which they did not partake, including the visceral pleasures
that money can bring.

Concerning the challenge of achieving balance, Eybeshitz wrote:
"Our natural needs are important and pleasures are not to be renounced.
Man requires material things to live, and Judaism is not calculated
to bring pain but joy and happiness to man. Our religion does
not require a self-inflicted discipline or self-sacrifice, fasting and flagellation.
We are not expected to live as hermits nor a life of self-denial."
Judaism advocates "not the total abstention from physical comforts but
the judicious use of them."

Delight in One's Lot

Judaism teaches that the truly wealthy people (or companies) are those
who appreciate what they have attained. A wealthy person is one who
achieves a peaceful state of mind through his money. This implies that
a wealthy person has neither a lot of money nor a little money. A billionaire
would not be considered wealthy if he was not satisfied with
what he had, yet a poor person would be considered wealthy if he was
happy with his small lot.

The Book of Proverbs says: "Lest I become sated and deny, saying
'who is God?' or lest I become impoverished and steal thus profaning
the name of my God." In other words, if we have everything we want
materially, we might believe that God has nothing to do with our
wealth, that we did it all on our own. That might lead to denying the
existence of God altogether. On the other hand, if we were so poor that
we stole for sustenance, we would break God's commandments as well.
This passage calls for balance in our financial lives.

"Who is rich?" the Talmudic rabbis asked each other. One rabbi
replied that it is the man who has a bathroom near his dining room. (In
ancient times, having your own personal privy close to the house was a
perk of the rich.) Another said that a rich person is one who has a hundred
fields, a hundred vineyards, and a hundred slaves in each of them.


Excerpted from Values, Prosperity, and the Talmud
by Larry Kahaner
Copyright © 2003 by Larry Kahaner.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Lesson 1 The Spirituality of Money 1
Lesson 2 Work as a Holy Act 23
Lesson 3 Treating Workers Well Pays Dividends 43
Lesson 4 Giving and Getting a Fair Day's Work 73
Lesson 5 The Bonding of Corporate Profits and Ethics 89
Lesson 6 Balancing the Environment and Profits 123
Lesson 7 The Rules of Partnerships, Deals, and Debt 143
Lesson 8 Competition Is for True Competitors Only 169
Lesson 9 Education Is a Lifelong Process 183
Lesson 10 Charity Means More Than Just Giving 203
The Ultimate Business Secret of the Rabbis: Reputation 217
A Note on Translation and Commentators 233
A Short History of the Talmud 235
Unlocking the Talmud's Structure 241
A Who's Who of Talmudic Rabbis 243
Bibliography 251
Index 257
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  • Posted July 14, 2012

    Excellent Business Book

    I truly enjoyed the historical connections and insight that was summarized in this book by Mr. Kahaner. This was a book that I had a difficult time putting down - it was easily readable and it is one of those books that I felt the author was sitting in front of me telling me the story (like my very own personal Rabbi). I highly recommend this!

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