Materialism and Hiddur Mitzvah

Someone recently commented here that she was shocked by the level of materialism that exists in the frum world. I have also often felt that way, but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it was an unfair judgment on my part, so I thought I’d share a bit about what caused me to change my attitude.

Many BTs start out with an anti-materialistic stance. That’s partly because we are spiritually inclined by nature and partly because we are reacting to the extreme materialism of the secular culture in which we were raised. I, for one, spent a great part of my teenage years proving to myself that I was not – please excuse my language – a J.A.P. I went so far as to attend far-left indoctrination meetings on a regular basis. The main thing I learned there was resentment toward the wealthy. That attitude stuck for years, well beyond my involvement with the Left.

Several years into my teshuva, when attending a Shabbaton, a “first-timer” asked me, “What do all these women, dressed to the nines, have to do with G-d?” I didn’t have an answer for her. It bothered me, too, and it continued bothering me. I even knew a Mymer Chazal to justify my attitude: “Poverty befits a Jew like a red bridle on a white horse.” (Chagigah 9b.)

Now in some ways, the feeling that it was more spiritual to live with less was good for me. It helped me get through lots of lean years. At the same time, though, I was judgmental of people who had more. So between arrogance, judgment, and envy, the picture is not very spiritual at all.

My change of attitude came in a shiur given by Yavilah McCoy, founder of the excellent organization Ayecha (perhaps I’ll post about Ayecha some other time.) She spoke about the Avos and their “specialties” in serving Hashem, that is, chesed, gevurah, and tiferes.

“Tiferes is my favorite,” she said. And she gave the example of receiving a gift from a friend wrapped in a way that was perfectly designed to suit her tastes. Giving the gift was an act of chesed, but by beautifying it the giver added a personal touch. That is the way we should perform our mitzvahs to Hashem. We deliver Him gifts in wrapping paper.

Therefore, when a lady wears a pretty dress l’kavod Shabbos, she beautifies the mitzvah of Shabbos. (My husband points out that by beautifying herself, she may also be beautifying the mitzvah of shalom bayis.) And even if she wears it not purely for the sake of Hashem or her husband but for her own pleasure also, does it really matter? Who but a tzaddik performs mitzvahs in absolute purity?

Everyone has personal indulgences that motivate them to serve Hashem better. If my neighbors have a nicer house than I do and turn their home into a center of shiurim, hachnassas orchim, and tzedaka, should I begrudge it to them? Even if they need the external trappings as a motivation to continue doing those mitzvahs, since Hashem has seen fit to bless them with material wealth, it is certainly not my place to judge them as “too materialistic.” My job is to learn to fargin my wealthier neighbors. In turn, their job is to prevent themselves from snobbery. We are not what we own, and we should not define each other that way. After all, the sin that keeps us in galus is not materialism but sinas chinam.

35 comments on “Materialism and Hiddur Mitzvah

  1. Mr. Brizel,

    That’s the amazing thing about it. He probably lived in a luxurious home, but he did not enjoy it for his own sake. Everything was l’shem Shamayim.

  2. A family in my community was pretty strapped for cash, so I was shocked to see them driving a fancy new van. What chutzpah, I thought. It turns out that the wife’s father insisted that they get a very safe vehicle, and he paid for it all. People could argue with the father’s decision, but it gave me quite a lesson in dan l’kaf zchus. As R’ Carlebach would sometimes say, “you never know.”

  3. Mrs. Housman-You are correct in your statement re Rabbenu HaKadosh. Yet, The Talmud also goes out of its way to mention the fact that he had the wherewithal to devote LKvavod HaShem, as opposed to living a life of ascetic like poverty.

  4. About this week’s Mishpacha magazine – I’m pretty sure they were all articles, not ads. That’s what’s most confusing about it.

    I have some pretty wealthy chassidishe relatives. My uncle and aunt could’ve afforded the most expensive cars and home. They chose not to. They live quite comfortably but not the most, the best. Some of their kids felt it necessary to upgrade and get the best. They’re all quite frum and do lot’s of mitzvos, but I think one of their parents’ lessons of modesty has been “adjusted” somewhat.

  5. This was an excellent article and a fascinating thread of comments.

    There is also the point that lavish spending that triggers jealousy in others provokes an Ayin Hara. This ayin hara can redound on the wealthy family, but it can also hurt the entire community. With so many yidden in need of yeshuos, IMHO it is incumbent on everyone, regardless of income, to demonstrate retraint at least where the spending is visible to others (as opposed to the interior of one’s home).

    There is also the matter of plain old good taste. Since when did it become necessary to flaunt wealth? When I was growing up, my father was self-employed, and some years were lean, and other years were quite comfortable. I remember when I was a teenager, when we were in our comfortable stage, my father told me, “You know, I could afford to buy you a car, but I’m not buying you a car, because I think it’s ridiculous for a teenager who hasn’t earned anything yet and hasn’t developed maturity, to have such a thing.” Just because a person has wealth doesn’t mean he or she should check his sense of taste and propriety at the door.

    Certain people in the frum community whom I met early on in my tshuva were very wealthy, but you would never know it from examining their home or their personal presentation. Everything about them exuded restraint and dignity. They impressed my very much, especially when I realized they were huge baalei tzedaka.

    Although there is nothing wrong with wealth per se (far from it!), I believe this topic has hit such a chord on this blog because it is somehow apparant that this propriety has been lost among many. The rash of huge homes, hugely expensive wigs, and kallah gifts is evidence of that.

  6. Seppardi Lady-great question. I would defer that question to any Rav or Magid Shiur learning Yevamos ( or Ksuvos)! I suppose that an elementary beginning of the inquiry might be whether a husband can be “mochel” or “mvatel” on these obligations in the same way that one do do re honor, etc.

    It would seem to be that saving money for the house would be a lot more practical than spending the same in what seems to be an overly profligate manner. Take a look at the weekly serial story in Mishpacha if you want to see how not to spend money-Internet gambling.

  7. Shayna,

    I know you didn’t mean to say anything against me personally. But please do not judge your other Jewish sisters. We don’t know anybody‘s financial situation, really. Some Jews get government help. Some don’t need it. Some Jews spend within their means. Some Jews don’t. But whatever their financial situation, we’re supposed to love them all, and judgment causes distance which breaks down love. And I can say that without judgment because this is a battle I’m fighting, too.

    Mr. Brizel,

    One of the most amazing things to me about Rabbi Yehudah Ha Nassi is that though he was wealthy, when he died he said that he never got a little finger’s worth of pleasure from this world. It was all l’kavod Hashem.

  8. >>Steve Brizel: For instance, there are dinim that a husband should spend more on his wife than himself re clothing and that may include buying his wife a new outfit every month according to some opinions.

    Can a wife relinquish her ‘rights’ to such gifts just like she can choose to support herself instead of having her husband support her like the halacha written in the ketubah?

    If a husband can be freed from the obligations of the ketubah, I see no reason why he can’t be freed from the obligation to buy new jewlery on yom tov or a new outfit every month. (Being that I control the finances in this home, I have essentially freed my husband of of these obligations. Somehow money in a bank account that is growing for a downpayment on a home is much more important to us than getting me a new outfit).

  9. What an interesting discussion! I have particularly enjoyed following the thread because of all the female points of view.

    Whenever I read in the Bircas Hamazon: “Please, Hashem our G-d, don’t make us need the gifts or loans of other people; let us get all our needs only from Your hand” and “I was young and I became old, but I never saw a righteous person who was all alone and whose children had to beg for bread” – I feel very challenged in my own perceptions of money and security. I was raised by a father that was first generation coming from a family that was Polish Jewish. My father was a product of the Great Depression and his habits never swayed from that experience. I seemed to have incorporated that attitude and it can be a burden and show an inherent lack of faith. I sometimes admire women who show so much gusto for material things – they show so much confidence in the here and now. I am not BT myself, however the materialism you speak of among some members of the frum community, is it not reflective of the growth of the consumer society across North America and Western Europe
    since the end of WWII?

  10. I also gratefully accept hand-me-downs from my clothes conscious friends. I love seeing my kids look gorgeous in them!

  11. Kressel, we are dear blog sisters, and I would never dis you! However, don’t twist my words. No one objects to people who need to accept government assistance and chessed. That’s what it’s for–and that’s why we are happy to give tzedekah to these organizations. You aren’t being a JAP on food stamps! (I use the word intentionally because I think it’s a fun and very useful word…so there!) I think you know what I meant in my original post.

  12. One more point. Take a look carefully throughout our history and you will see that Torah Judaism has always had elements of Gashmius and Ruchnius that have always been present. If you look thru Chazal, Medrashim, etc, you will see views expressed that condemn both gashmius and poverty. There are Tannaim who definitely were at the top and bottom of their economic levels-Rabbeinu HaKadosh is an obvious case in point. While the Chafetz Chaim lived in a very simple way, many Admorim lived quite well.

  13. Be careful of generalizations like that, Shayna. I’ve been on Medicaid and received Tomchei Shabbos donations, and to this day, my kids and I dress in hand-me-downs. I don’t know how people afford what they have, but it’s not my place to count their money.

    BTW, anyone reading this thread may be interested to read the out takes to this which are on my blog here. It’s a devar Torah that arose as my husband helped me find the source quote for “Poverty befits a Jew like a red bridle on a white horse.”

  14. I think that we can and should distinguish between halachically mandated , minhag based and what many Rabbanim might call “stam shtus” in these areas.You have to check Tefilin and Mzuzuos as per the Shulchan Aruch. Clothing for Shabbos and YT is expensive as is “headgear” if that is how people dress in your kehilah or that is your practice. However, keeping up with the Jones is in my opinion being profligate when the $ should be used on other means such as tuitions, tzedaka and buying Sefarim.

    For instance, there are dinim that a husband should spend more on his wife than himself re clothing and that may include buying his wife a new outfit every month according to some opinions. Obviously, Shayna has hit a sore point with respect to some people who abuse government assistance as a license to keep up with the Jones. etc.

  15. This is definately a hot topic for me, too,Kressel (as I’ve mouthed off here before). But my angle is: how in the world do they afford all the materialism?!

    This is a lifestyle that seems to require a lot more things. I was always puzzled hearing about a minhag for a husband to buy his wife jewelry on Yomim Tovim. Halavai, with the extra expenses of Yom Tov, that many of us could afford such a luxury! Those of us who scoff at materialism still feel the ache that we can’t buy our kids new outfits and new shoes for each new season like almost everyone else(especially the overpriced European stock flying out of the “haimishe” stores).

    It’s certainly a different outlook. Perhaps it’s somewhat offensive because it’s not the secular American way. The same ladies with the jewelry and gorgeously bedecked kids don’t hesitate to file for food stamps, government-funded health insurance, and even Tomchei Shabbos-type donations. We, on the other hand, are going broke on insurance premiums, co-pays, grocery bills, mortgage payments, tuition, and the struggle to save something for a rainy day.

    Is this a difference between a “European” (the government is against us–let’s finagle what we can)and “American” (we must be role models for the goyim so we can combat anti-Semitism) Jewish outlook?

  16. Gashmius obviously has its pluses and minuses. If you are blessed with it and your house is a center for Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim, then noone would think that the house is a McMansion, etc.That being said, I agree with Gershon’s assessment of the recent articles and advertising in Mishpacha.

  17. Gershon,

    I saw the “Mishpacha” article, too, and of course, I agree, Jews should not spend themselves into bankruptcy. But some people can afford vacations to Switzerland, and “Mishpacha” has to sell ads if it’s going to survive. Ads aren’t going away, so the thing is to remember the message of the article: Know what you can afford and live that way. The challenge, I think, is not so much the deprivation of the desired object itself, but the feeling of having less than others. This, of course, is jealousy, and the cure is as everyone has said, learning to be m’sameach b’chelko. And as I said above, the danger with that is looking down on the wealthy as somehow morally inferior.

    I’ve gotta say, though, that the absolute best ad I ever saw in a Jewish magazine was in “Chesed” which Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation distributed at the Tisha B’Av shiurim in 2003. It was an ad for furniture which showed a picture of Yerushalayim and said something like, “This is reality,” and then at the bottom, was a very small logo from the furniture store which said, “Everything else is a test.”

  18. Shoshana,

    I agree wholeheartedly with the points you make, but the danger of embracing an attitude of “I can live with less” is a false sense of moral superiority over people who are living with more.

  19. This subject is a thorny issue. I came home last night to hear my wife’s surprise at two contrary messages in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine. The cover article talks about how people live beyond their means and get into debt. Later in the same magazine it shows a huge magnificent hotel (I think in Switzerland or some place like that) to consider for Pesach. Also in that same edition is an article about shopping – one item among many is a woman’s coat for $900. Yet another article talks about the latest TRIO or Palm equivalent that you should consider buying.

    This is not meant to be a critique on that magazine – I think it talks to our generation as a whole. We are quite conflicted when it comes to how, what and when to spend.

  20. Being inspired by what I’m reading here, I’m thinking about displaying that famous
    ‘antimaterialistic’ possuk: “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked” from Deut 32:15 somewhere in my house. I was thinking about the fridge, but people might think it’s just talking about food.

  21. Shoshana Silcove,
    Gut g’zugt!!! Maybe you should give mussar shmuessen at some of the semanaries.

  22. Shaddchunim complain louldy that too many girls will not even considermeeting a boy who is not well heeled.

    My mother (may she rest in peace) used to say,’marry for money and you will pay for the rest of your life”, and my aunt used to say, ‘money is round, you never know who it is going to fall on’, or fall off of, for that matter.

    These young girls who are looking for the gold should realize that there are no guarantees that the money they marry today will always be there tomorrow, and if the money goes, they still have to live with the man they married. But if they are taught to look for the middos of the person, then that is something they can always rely on–that they are married to a mench.

    Don’t forget, there are lots of wealthy women crying and getting drunk all alone in their big lonely houses.

    This materialism is causing alot of divorces. Teach our children to look for someone who is hard working, trustworthy, has yiras shamayim, and menchlikite, and they will then have a great chance for a happy life, in wealth of in poverty, however the Abishter deems it to be.

  23. >Someone recently commented here that she was shocked by the level of materialism that exists in the frum world.

    On more comment. No matter how you cut it, spin it, or approach it, the level of materialism is shocking. The level of materalism is choking those who cannot afford to fit in, but feel the the need to do so, as they turn to debt financing to provide what is beyond their means. The materialism leaves even those who do not wish to conform between a rock and a hard place because they are afraid it will affect their children’s ability to wed.

    The frum community lives so closely together that what one family does is practically public information and bascially becomes expected of everyone.

    In general society people do not know whose kids when to camp and where all of their neighbors go on vacation or make simchas. The distance obviously has its disadvantages, but one advantage that it has is that it eliminates a lot of pressure. A couple can get married with a backyard BBQ or they can head to the Hilton. And where a family sends their children to camp (or does not send their children to camp) has no bearing on their future dating prospects or even their current standing for admission to middle school.

    I see no reason to call it as it is. And, plenty of Rabbonim of yichus, are calling it as it is too.

  24. Like Ilanit, my parents were savers and rarely spent money on all of the many material items that we kids wanted (and G-d know I wanted quite a few). At the time I was so upset with my parents and failed to give them the thanks that I should have for providing me with more than the basics, as well as the extra-curricular lessons.

    But, by the end of high school and continuing until the present, I have come to appreciate them immensely. My parents concentration on saving for the future left me with choices. Unlike many of my peers, I was not left with student loans, which often strip women of the choice to stay home when their children are young. I am not chasing a life-style that is beyond my means (all except day school tuition, I guess). And, I have the dignity that comes with being self-supporting.

    I can only hope that my husband and I can be as strong as my parents and hold up to the pressures of the frum community and do for our children what our parents did for us.

    There is absolutely no reason to feel sorry for someone that is not being indulged with trendy items. And, depending on the level of indulgent, a more appropriate emotion might be to feel sympathy for them.

  25. I would have to agree with Ms. Silcove on the last post. I was the girl in my class who didn’t have the latest Keds or the latest Swatch watch, and I wondered why. But I knew why – I saw my parents work so hard for what I did have, and I saw them invest their money into me in different ways (the day school, the piano lessons, the trips to Israel) that they would not otherwise have afforded. And to be honest, I really did (and still do) respect my parents so much more for that. Despite my occasional pleas, they held their ground in how the money was spent. In the end it comes to choices and values, and yes sometimes there is a gray area, but I think that generally it’s the fundamental values that will be evident.

  26. Kressel wrote:Yes, the parents have to educate her to be happy with her lot, but if it were my kid, I’d feel terrible for her.

    Shoshanna Silcove answers: With all due respect, I would never feel sorry for her for something so relatively petty. I would use the experience to help build her character, and teach her how to be happy and have strong hashkafas. Children absorb our values from us. If we teach them that they do not have to follow the herd of sheep, and if we teach them not to feel inadequate, or superior, because they either lack or have more than ohters materially, then we are giving them correct guidance.

  27. Agreed. And I think a grown woman can get over her “need” for a sheitel that’s over her budget. What gets sticky is a situation like this: a teenage girl from a family with financial struggles wants to get an expensive pair of shoes becaue all the other girls in class have it and she doesn’t want to feel like a neb. Yes, the parents have to educate her to be happy with her lot, but if it were my kid, I’d feel terrible for her.

  28. I would be the last person to deny anyone their earned rewards, as I indulge myself for working hard. And teenagers who work hard deserve their material rewards. I am talking about SPOILED kids, of which there are too many, who get everything handed to them.

    What does materialism mean to us? What does money mean to you, or I? What should it mean?
    Are we too caught up in the consumerist society around us? These are questions that need to be addressed honestly.

    When frum women just have to have a custom made sheitel that costs way over their budget or else they get upset, then we have a problem with our avodah.

    A Jew is suppossed to be in this world but above it at the same time. Our materialistic resources should be used to enhance our avodah, so we raise nicer more refined better educated children, so we can help our fellow Jews and increase our achdus. Our prosperity should be used to enhance our avodah and not the other way around.

  29. Also, your example of the kallahs receiving diamond-studded watches reminds me of an incident I observed in a stocking store. For me, buying stockings is an in-and-out sort of thing; I’m not very selective. But once in the stocking store, I listened to some teenage girls rejecting some pairs of stockings and very politely demanding of the saleslady to bring them stockings that fit whatever specificiations they had.

    While watching this, I was disgusted by the incredible sense of entitlement these girls had that they should get whatever they wanted, but later I changed my mind. For one thing, they were paying for the stockings and the customer is always right. But more important than that is the fact that frum teenage girls work hard. I’ve seen it with my nieces; they do a lot more housework and babysitting than I ever did as a secular teen. And if they don’t get material rewards, what are they going to get. My personal indulgence after housework is the Internet, but that’s not something most frum homes allow. They don’t allow putting up one’s feet in front of the TV either. So what else is it going to be, but pretty clothes? Expecting them to do it all for kivud av v’em demands too much, I think. So let them have their rewards.

  30. My post did not deny that some people can go overboard in materialistic attitudes. And I understand why you’d object to the term J.A.P. That’s why I said “excuse my language.” Believe me, it’s not a word I use often, but it does describe the mentality I was trying to avoid in high school.

  31. I admire you idealistic sentiments Kressel, but I believe we have an obligation not to raise our children to be spoiled. Spoiled children are not happy or healthy adults, and we need to inculcate them with spiritual values by role modelling those values. Our yeshivas need to put more emphasis on teaching children to be ‘happy with their lot’, and parents need to to develop better parenting skills so they can teach children good values.

    I remember when I got engaged at age 29, I didn’t care if my choson gave me a watch (he didn’t, and we are happily married 19 years later, thank G-d). But the FFB girls, most of whom were only 20 years old, got so hung up on the gifts of the gold watch with diamonds, and all the gashmias around the chasuna, and all the rest. I remember thinking how happy I was to just have made it into becoming frum, and what a gift Hashem had given me in finding a wonderful soul mate, and I couldn’t have asked Hashem for more. Perhaps these FFB girls should be taught better values about what is important in marriage, and about what is valuabe enough to appreciate.

    I take issue with the term JAP although alot of Jews use it, but it has terrible anti-Semitic connotations.

    I agree we should forgin those wealthier than ourselves, but at the same time, we should work to avoid excessive materialism, since this is the idol worship of our day.

    Yiddishkeit is hollow if it is all about the silver of your Shabbos candles and not the spiritual light from the Shabbos flames.

    It would be complete denial not to admit we have a problem in the frum world with excessive materialism. Just look at some of the ads in any of the frum publications, and they often border on crass and pritzus, but somehow this is all justified in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. And there are just too many ‘frum’ businemen who make the headlines for getting caught doing crooked deals.

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