February 18, 2015
Menachem Ziegelboim in #962, Feature, controversy

Wealthy people and wealth were not highly regarded in the world of Chassidus, even though there were great Chassidim who were very rich and gave much tzdaka. * What was the difference of opinion between the Rebbe and the Kapitchnitzer Rebbe about wealth? How did the Rebbe explain the fact thatRebbi would honor the rich,” and why did scarcely any Chassidim raise their hand when the Rebbe offered wealth to whoever asked for it? * Insights about wealth and wealthy people presented for Parshas Truma.


Wealth – is it good or bad?

It depends on who you ask. The “world” says it’s great because you can do so many wonderful, useful things with it. If you ask a Chassid, he’ll say it’s not befitting a Chassid.

Is that so?

Like anything in Chassidus, there are varying angles from which you can look at it. The question really is how something is used and what one’s relationship or attitude is toward it.

The Rebbe Rayatz summed it up pithily when he said, “Ashirus (wealth) is useful and pleasant, but it is also dangerous merchandise.”

During many periods in history, wealth was not synonymous with good character or fear of heaven, to say the least. Although many great Torah scholars had ample livelihoods and some of them were wealthy, still and all, there was a certain ambivalence toward them. A wealthy person was seen as someone whose head was primarily in his business affairs while he was somewhat cool to matters of Judaism. There were segments of the population, Chassidic ones in particular, who distanced themselves from wealth and wealthy people. The Rebbe Rashab once said to a rich Chassid who had a galoshes factory, “Feet in galoshes I’ve seen, but a head in galoshes?!”

The way of Chabad is to approach every matter and issue from the perspective of avodas Hashem; to investigate, search, and reach the truth of the matter, and use it in the best possible way. In this matter too, the Rebbeim laid out a broad perspective on the problems inherent in wealth, not in order to dismiss it, but to pave the way for those who serve Hashem so they can walk securely on this path, even with wealth.

In an amazing sicha that the Rebbe Rayatz gave in 1936, he expounds on the ambivalence toward wealth and the wealthy. The Rebbe begins the discussion with the verse in Koheles, “There is a grievous evil that I’ve seen under the sun,” and quotes the Midrash that enumerates various rich people like Korach, Navos, Haman, the b’nei Gad, the b’nei Reuven, and Iyov. These five, albeit very different from each other, are archetypes of people whose wealth caused them to come to harm, some on the physical plane and for some it even led to their death. Of those five rich men, Rashi picks the extremely wealthy Korach as a prototype for generations to come when he cites the verse, “wealth preserved for its owner to his detriment” – “like the wealth of Korach, for it caused him to be arrogant and he descended into the abyss.”

The Rebbe Rayatz expands on this, saying “Wealth preserved for its owner to his detriment” comes in different ways and the main one is pride that comes from wealth, arrogance with no limit. When he becomes rich, he forgets who he is and where he comes from. He seems in his own eyes to be wise, pedigreed, a know-it-all, and above all, the “and the rich respond impudently” grows in bizarre proportions.

The Rebbe goes on to tell a story that happened in the years 5639-5641 (1879-81) when, among the government figures in Petersburg, there was much incitement for pogroms and anti-Semitism. At those times, there were frequent meetings held by g’dolei Yisroel in Petersburg which were also attended by the wealthy Jews of Petersburg. At one of those meetings, in which they discussed a religious question, some of the rich men expressed themselves disrespectfully regarding Torah and mitzvos.

One of the g’dolei Yisroel who was very upset by this, said: Although the rich people don’t concur with this view, we cannot rely on their opinion since the measuring scales of the wealth are not correct.

This shocked everyone present, especially the wealthy men who were there. They were shaken.

But this particular gadol did not stop there. He went on to lace into the wealthy and said, “Shlomo HaMelech knew good and well what riches are since, because of his wealth and because of his nature, he was in the category of ‘and a rich person responds impudently.’ But the wealth and impudence need to match. However, there are some whose impudence is much greater than their wealth.”

The Rebbe Rayatz went on to say, “It is not necessary to speak about wealth preserved for its owner to his detriment, G-d forbid. Everyone knows what is written in the next verse, “And those riches are lost through an evil design, and he will give birth to a son who will have nothing in his hand,” and everyone knows what the Midrash says on that, [“because he did not give to the poor and even what he did give he gave grudgingly, he will not keep his wealth to pass along to his son” – Ed]. The upheavals that have occurred in our days have shown us clearly what the solidity of wealth is and what value it has.

“Everyone remembers in the depths of his heart with what dismissive impudence of the wealthy he dismissed the one who wasn’t rich, with what casualness he treated the needs of the poor. May Hashem have mercy and rehabilitate them and restore their wealth and surely they will behave differently.” The Rebbe then told a story from the year 5659 (see sidebar).

The story was that the Mitteler Rebbe asked his father the Alter Rebbe why rich people are arrogant by nature. Suddenly, their middos change and they become arrogant! The Alter Rebbe replied:

Hashem established the nature of pride within wealth. The Chamber of Wealth is situated between Gan Eden and Gehinom. The Chamber of Wealth has two doors, one facing the other. One door leads to Gan Eden and the other to Gehinom.

The grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, said that wealth is Gan Eden for one and Gehinom for another. The Alter Rebbe explained: One who uses wealth for tz’daka and Torah and mitzvos, the wealth itself is Gan Eden. The one who uses wealth for himself, for matters of this world or he holds on to it like a treasure, the wealth itself is Gehinom.


Our Rebbe said that every Jew ought to be wealthy. It was this week, twenty-three years ago, Parshas Truma 5752, that the Rebbe surprised the Chassidim in the course of a farbrengen when he said:

First of all, we learn from this that Hashem declares in His holy Torah, the Torah which is eternal for all generations and in all places, that every single Jew is connected firstly to gold. Simply put, every single Jew needs to be wealthy, both spiritually and materially, literal wealth!

From this there is an instruction, that a Jew needs to try to become rich in all areas starting with spiritual wealth – there is no ashir except in daas – to be wealthy in Torah and mitzvos and also – material wealth so he can fulfill Torah and mitzvos with peace of soul and body.

The Rebbe also refers to the nature of riches in Yemos HaMoshiach. In the sicha of Acharei-K’doshim 5751, the Rebbe reassures the wealthy who are worried that their wealth won’t have any value in Yemos HaMoshiach. The Rebbe explains that Geula includes all matters of galus in a way that they are elevated to the status of Geula. Therefore, the wealthy have nothing to worry about the Geula.

The Rebbe met with the Kapitchnitzer Rebbe, R’ Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel, in Av 5718/1958. They discussed expansive parnasa which the Jewish people ought to have, to the extent of wealth. The Rebbe even said, “If only all Jews had wealth, even less than the wealth of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.” The Kapitchnitzer Rebbe maintained that wealth is a spiritual test and said, “I am afraid of the nisayon of wealth,” but the Rebbe insisted that the Admur agree to wealth. The Rebbe said to him:

Poverty is a test, a worse test, which causes a person to traverse his knowledge and the knowledge of his Maker, and with this nisayon one toils and suffers. The nisayon of wealth is better!

The Rebbe proved from the conduct of Moshe Rabbeinu that Jews need wealth. The Kapitchnitzer Rebbe tried arguing that he was old and if he was asking for something already, he would ask for Moshiach. The Rebbe said to him: What contradiction is there between the two things? Ask for both!

When the Admur spoke about the Saraph [as the Kotzker Rebbe was known] who did not have wealth, the Rebbe responded: That is the behavior of seraphim … but Jews who live in this physical world need ‘children, life and ample parnasa,’ and in fact all of them should be ample.

One could see how the Rebbe wanted the Admur to bless Jews that they be wealthy. Chassidim sensed that something lofty was hidden within this debate and perhaps it was an auspicious time. The Rebbe continued to press his guest. Toward the end of the conversation, the Rebbe asked the Admur: I want you to agree that Jews need wealth. The Admur realized it wasn’t a simple matter that the Rebbe was insisting so strongly and so he responded to the Rebbe’s satisfaction: I agree wholeheartedly.


Despite the nisayon of wealth, our Rebbeim never eschewed wealth, and whenever they spoke about it they made a point of citing its good points as well as its negative aspects.

One day, the Tzemach Tzedek left his room and asked the Chassidim: Tell me, what level of prosperity that a Jew has would not be considered extraneous luxury?

Apparently, the Rebbe saw that a heavenly accusation was being leveled at Jews who were not satisfied with a one room rickety hut on the edge of town and were building themselves a house.

Present was a clever Chassid who quickly responded to the Rebbe. “Beis choma and 50,000 rubles in the bank” (A beis choma was something in those days like a villa nowadays and yet the Chassid did not consider it in the category of luxury). The Tzemach Tzedek smiled and returned to his room.

PURIM 5715/1955

Hundreds of Chassidim gathered for the Purim farbrengen with the Rebbe. The area was small but everyone crowded in joyously for it was Purim!

None of them knew of the extraordinary revelation awaiting them. One sicha followed another and in between, the Chassidim sang niggunim. Suddenly, the Rebbe’s face lit up and he said:

People complain, why is avoda with mesirus nefesh demanded and they say it would be far better if every person sat under his vine and under his fig tree with plenty of material things and children, life and a plentiful livelihood.

They don’t speak about wealth and not about luxuries that interfere with spirituality and even with materiality as in the analogy of the Tzemach Tzedek about clothing; just as short clothing are not befitting, so too, clothing that is too long is not good because you can trip on it. The same is true for all material matters which are external and are called garments, “You clothed me in skin and flesh,” as we unfortunately see with some wealthy people that the test of wealth is a bigger test and requires a lot of toil to withstand and as it says in Tanya [when describing a lot of toil] demands several hours of meditation …

At this point, the Rebbe paused and then continued:

Nevertheless, may Hashem give every Jew wealth and may there be toil of the soul and flesh and the need for meditation for a number of hours in order to do away with the test. In America, everything goes by a vote and so, whoever is willing to have outstanding wealth and doesn’t care about the toil, should raise their right hand with a whole heart.

The people present were stunned. None of them expected such a heavenly revelation like this. And anyway, when – since Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – was such wealth offered to talmidim in such an easy way? Whoever wanted to be rich merely had to raise his hand. What an opportunity!

The Rebbe waited a few moments and looked around. Apparently, most of the people who were under the influence of the sicha which had just been said about the difficulty of the test of wealth, did not get up the nerve to raise their hand. Only three people raised their hand. Then the Rebbe said:

Later they complain that this is lacking and that is lacking but when there was an auspicious time they made Chabad’ske shtusim… What should I do with them, in material matters they pursue every doubt and a shadow of a doubt on the off chance that it might pay off. And when there is a farbrengen with more than a minyan of Jews and there is an auspicious time to grab something connected with Hashem Himself, they lose the opportunity just so they can be called baalei mochin (men of intellect). What should I do? This won’t interfere even spiritually and there will be more time and strength to do things in this physical world in strengthening Torah and mitzvos …

Chassidim say that those few who raised their hands at that special Purim farbrengen became very wealthy. Those who attended the farbrengen know who they are.

One of the Chassidim who was present later said that many people who hear the story wonder why Chassidim did not take advantage of the offer, but only those who were there could understand the atmosphere, that after the Rebbe had spoken at length about the test of wealth and had said it was harder than the test of poverty and then he offered, whoever wants wealth should vote – after such an introduction, nearly everyone was afraid to raise their hand.

The Rebbe spoke about this in a letter to a woman who had apparently been surprised that the Rebbe wished Jews wealth. He wrote in 5717:

… It is obvious and well known that I wish that every Jew live a life of expansiveness not just spiritual expansiveness but material expansiveness too, in the literal sense. And even though the test of wealth is greater than the opposite test, it is a positive thing in the service to his Maker of man who draws life from the Source of all Life.


In one of the sichos, the Rebbe explains the statement in the Gemara that Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi) would give honor to the rich. Was their wealth so important that even Rebbi honored them?

The Rebbe says that if Divine Providence gave the rich man the means to do great things in Hashem’s world, then obviously he also has the soul powers necessary to fulfill this special role. A person like this deserves honor because heaven has bestowed him with special abilities.

In a letter that the Rebbe sent to the second Israeli President, Yitzchok Ben Tzvi, in 5716, he brings up another point about the idea of Rebbi giving honor to the rich:

The rich, people whom divine providence has given the means to accomplish a lot of good things in Hashem’s world, certainly have the requisite soul powers to fulfill this role, a role which goes far beyond the role of an average person and all the more so, a poor person.

Rabbeinu HaKadosh (Rebbi), who lived in a transition era in Jewish history, from a tranquil life, relatively speaking, to a life of evil decrees and persecution, and who had to muster all his strength in order to help the Jewish people in this challenge and emerge whole and safe, had the job of examining each one and trying to utilize all his capabilities. This is why he expressed a feeling of respect toward those who were given greater possibilities from above, which surely was also utilized toward protecting all that is sacred to the Jewish people, as all of the activities of Rabbeinu HaKadosh.

However, in accordance with the general governance of the world, every Jew has free choice and Hashem tests him to see whether he loves Hashem etc. and observes His mitzvos and listens to Him, etc. So too, free choice is given to all the wealthy and as it says, “See I have given before you today, life and good etc.” to fulfill through free choice, as the verse ends, “and choose life,” or G-d forbid, the opposite.

Obviously, if this is said about those who are rich with gold and silver, then all the more so those who are rich in their power of influence on their surroundings, near and far. Also obvious, since there is One in charge of this world and nothing is for naught, an active and positive use of wealth is necessary and it is not at all sufficient to just not use wealth in undesirable ways. (Igros Kodesh vol. 12, p. 413)

* * *

We’ll conclude with an idea that the Rebbe said regarding the wealthy and the fact that people strive to imitate them:

The fact that he will be rich and will be ranked among the financial elites that appear on the list of those in the 95% tax bracket is not yet the purpose of man’s creation, but rather all his matters ought to be for the sake of holiness so he can learn Torah with peace of mind, to fulfill mitzvos in an expansive way, and give tz’daka generously.

And yet not to suffice with that but to try and have a positive influence on others, for if he is rich he can more easily influence others. We see that a poor person is mocked and a rich person is imitated even when he does something foolish, and all the more so when he does something proper. Therefore, when he puts on t’fillin, everyone will put on t’fillin, when he keeps Shabbos, everyone will keep Shabbos, because they see that because he kept Shabbos, he became rich.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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