Foundations of a Jewish Economic Theory

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

Wealth, charity, and man’s quest for the divine.

Man’s sense of dominion, however, is most vividly expressed not in the benefit he derives from the world or his protection of it, but in his unique ability as a creator—the most important manifestation of his having been created in God’s image. The Church Fathers held that the world belongs to God, and man in his state of sinfulness has no right to control it. Judaism, however, insists that man is required not only to be involved in the world, but also to perfect it through creative acts. According to Judaism, man’s creative development of the world is the ultimate expression of his unique status. Man is obligated, to use the idiom of the rabbis, to “create worlds”:
So said the Holy One to the righteous, “You are like me… I create worlds and revive the dead, and so do you.”19
The power of mankind, according to the rabbinic view, is nearly unlimited. Like God, who “renews creation each and every day,”20 man, too, is invested with the supreme power to create worlds. As such, he reshapes reality in accordance with his human spirit—a spirit which in its godliness brings the material world to fulfillment through its elevation. In this way, man plays an integral part in the process of creation, a process that cannot be brought to completion without human intervention. “All that was created during the six days that God created the world,” says the Midrash, “still requires work.” Even the smallest, seemingly trivial things require man’s contribution for their completion. “Even mustard seed must be sweetened, and wheat must be ground.”21 The ultimate act of creation, however, is undoubtedly that of human procreation: Man and woman bring another creative soul into the world, the ultimate expression of human godliness. In this way they, like God, “create worlds and revive the dead,” and become true partners in the act of creation.22
Man’s role, according to Judaism, is thus distinctly informed by the notion that he, having been created in God’s image, is to have dominion over the world—a dominion that expresses itself through his obligation to benefit from it, to take responsibility for it, and to perfect it through creative acts.
Judaism, however, does not restrict itself to establishing the role of men as individuals. One of Judaism’s central aims is to create a certain kind of society, one that is best suited to man’s unique role. This means that the idea of human dominion will express itself not just through theory and parable, but also through law. Perhaps the most important legal institution in this regard, which forms the very foundation of society from the Jewish perspective, is the institution of private property.
The creation of man in God’s image, and his consequent duty to exercise dominion over the world, are the foundations upon which the Jewish concept of property rests. In contrast to the classical Christian view, in which ownership is conditional and relates to the manner of an object’s use, the right to private property in Judaism is nearly absolute, and can be restricted only in the most extreme circumstances. In accordance with man’s role in the world, it is only through the protection of the individual’s property that human beings will be able to actualize the divine image within them and act as full partners in creation.
Property, understood as full dominion over an object, is thus a central pillar of Jewish law, and its protection is a recurring theme in the Bible and the rabbinic teachings. The significance with which the Tora invests the right of ownership is evident in the numerous prohibitions pertaining to the property of others: The commandment, “You shall not remove your neighbor’s boundary mark”23 establishes the prohibition against stealing land; “You shall not have in your pocket different weights, large or small. You shall not have in your house different grain weights, large or small.... All who do such things… are an abomination to the Eternal your God,”24 prohibits the acquisition of property through fraud; “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep go astray, and hide yourself from them: You shall surely bring them back to your brother”25 prohibits the neglect of other people’s property even when it is not in your care, and obligates the return of lost items. By declaring as criminal anything that results in the loss of other people’s property, the Tora emphasizes the importance accorded to the institution of private property. This is expressed as a general principle in a number of verses in the Tora, such as: “You shall not steal” and “You shall not defraud your neighbor, nor rob him.”26 The lengths to which the Tora goes to encourage a respect for private possessions, however, is demonstrated most sharply in the Tenth Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… or his ox, or his ass, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”27 Here the prohibition goes beyond the unlawful acquisition of property to include even the “coveting” of another’s possessions.28
Further evidence of the high regard in which Judaism holds private property can be found in the punishments which are meted out in the Bible to those who undermine the social order through their flagrant disregard for it. Such, for example, is the attitude taken by the prophet Elijah against King Ahab for his mistreatment of Naboth the Jezreelite in the book of Kings. Ahab is cited repeatedly in the text for his worship of the pagan gods Baal and the Ashera, but his most important sin, for which he is stripped of his kingdom, is the murder of Naboth for the sake of stealing his vineyard. Here, the theft is seen as an atrocity, equal in weight to the murder itself:
And the word of the Eternal came to Elijah the Tishbi, saying: “Arise, go down to meet Ahab King of Israel, who is in the Shomron, in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to possess it. And you will speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the Eternal: Have you murdered, and also taken possession?’ And you shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the Eternal: In the place where the dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall the dogs lick your blood, even yours.’”29
The rabbinic tradition, as well, emphasized the gravity of acts that violate another’s property, equating them with the destruction of the foundations of society. The flood in the time of Noah, for example, was depicted as punishment for the sins of his generation against the property of others: “Come and see how great is the power of thievery,” the Talmud teaches, “for behold, the generation of the flood transgressed all, and yet they were not doomed until they stretched out their hands to steal.”30
The importance of property rights and the societal obligation to uphold them is similarly emphasized in the corpus of legal writings pertaining to ownership. According to the halacha, for example, transference of ownership is valid only when accompanied by an “act of acquisition” (ma’aseh kinyan), such as erecting a fence around a property or breaking down a surrounding fence, acts that signify the assumption of new ownership over the property, or at least the previous owner’s relinquishment of his claim.31 An owner’s dominion over his property is signified not only by his right to transfer, or to refuse to transfer, his assets to another, but also by his ability to do with his property what he wishes, even if that means its neglect or destruction. This is developed, for example, in a ruling of the Mishna, where it is written that if someone tells his friend, “Tear my garment,” or “Break my pitcher,” the friend is liable for damages; but if the owner explicitly exempts his friend from damages, the exemption holds, because he is understood to be carrying out the owner’s will.32 While it is possible to debate the details of this ruling, it is clear that everything turns on the owner’s will with regard to the object. Ownership, in other words, is understood to be so complete as to include even the right to destroy one’s own property.33
The definition of ownership as complete dominion is a fundamental principle of Jewish law, the aim of which is to preserve the individual’s dignity and sovereignty, and to prevent any encroachment on his dominion over his small portion of the material world. The rabbis of the Talmud, indeed, pushed the matter to the point of hyperbole: “To rob a fellow man even of the value of a peruta,” the Talmud asserts, “is like taking away his life from him.”34 Indeed, the right to private property is protected even in the most extreme cases. For example, the rabbinic legend tells the story of King David’s deliberations over whether he should set fire to another man’s field in order to drive out the Philistines who were hiding there.35 The rabbis answer that in all cases in which a person “saves himself through his friend’s wealth”—that is, destroys someone else’s property in order to save his own life—he must nonetheless pay damages. In other words, even in the case of saving a life, which in Jewish law is understood to override nearly every law, one is not exempt from paying damages that result from the actions taken.36

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