It’s Chanukka, so let’s talk about Gelt. The story of money is quite incredible, but we can’t cover it all in one week, so we’re going to start this week, and continue on to the next two weeks, so please do stay tuned! The information in this series is heavily gleaned from Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing, a great book on the subject by Jacob Goldstein.
Here’s Money – the Good, the Bad, and the Future.
The good side of money takes us back a long time. Thousands of year ago, about 90% of humans were subsistence farmers. They planted the food they needed, they churned their own butter, spun wool thread from their sheep to make clothes, and drank their cow’s milk before eating their cows meat. The farm would usually have a few needs that could not be met by the farm, perhaps they needed some metal for a plowshare, some dye for their clothing, or some whalebone buttons. For that they would barter, or trade some excess butter or a bolt of homemade cloth for the things they needed.
Barter was extremely inefficient. If the whalebone button maker didn’t need butter or cloth, you were out of luck. In order for any trade to work, a “double coincidence” had to exist between the buyer and seller’s needs and excesses, I have to have a surplus of what you need, AND you need to have a surplus of what I need! A world without money, a world where all exchanges are done as barter is a world of no money, and commerce is almost non-existent, as the double coincidences are too rare and can’t be relied upon. Everyone had to make almost everything they needed themselves.
Soon people started using lumps of precious metals; gold, silver, copper, and brass. This was a tremendous upgrade, because if Bob had excess butter, but no one in town had anything Bob needed, he could just sell his butter for some lumps of silver, and then when the whalebone button salesman rolled into town, he could buy the buttons he needed.
Lumps of metal were an upgrade, but they still created a lot of inefficiencies. Each lump weighed a different amount, and they usually weren’t pure silver or pure gold, but alloys, a mixture of metals. Sellers lost significant amounts of time just figuring out the value of the lumps of metal they were being paid with! Sometime around 600 BCE, somewhere in the vicinity of Greece, (there is much debate on the exact year and location), coins were minted. They were made of pure metals or alloys of consistent percentages, they had a uniform weight, and they honored the local ruler by putting his likeness on each coin. Soon, people could transact with ease; everything had a value in coins, like a two year old goat that would sell for two Zuzim, as opposed to a two year old goat that costs two bushels of wheat, or four lengths of linen cloth, or one barrel of wine, or three flasks of olive oil.
Even coins, convenient and significant as they were, faced some challenges. Thieves would file down coins to get gold and silver from the shavings (hence the preventative ridges on the sides of dimes and quarters). Coins were also heavy. They worked fine for small transactions but buying homes or businesses, or making large loans to finance expeditions, meant moving a lot of weight around, and that kind of lucre could easily catch the eyes of the unsavory folk, making it not only bothersome but dangerous. Additionally, the price of the underlying metal fluctuated, and at times, the value of the gold could be more than the value of the currency, causing people to try to get as many of the coins as possible and melt them down to sell as bullion thus diminishing the monetary supply.
To illustrate, let’s look at ancient China, where the standard coin was a bronze disc with a hole in the middle, the hole making it convenient to string together many coins. A standard string contained 1,000 bronze discs and weighed about seven pounds. Imagine buying a herd of cows for 300 strings of coin, it makes you want to never do business again! In Sichuan, where bronze was scarce, it was even worse. They used iron, which was more common, but also worth less. Buying a pound of salt required paying with a pound and half of coins! A world with only coins is the world of bad money.
Innovation came to money in fits and spurts, but most fascinating is how paper money showed up, did an amazing job, and then disappeared from earth for centuries before making a comeback. In 1271, Marco Polo, a young explorer from Venice, made his way to China, spent twenty five years observing the ways of the East, came back to Italy where he got embroiled in a war, and was sent to prison in Genoa. While in prison, he dictated a book to his cellmate, which became a sensation across Europe, opening people’s eyes to a culture vastly different to their own. Chapter 24 is the one most relevant for this discussion, and it’s title alone is quite impressive: How the Great Kaan Causeth the Bark of Trees, Made into Something Like Paper, to Pass for Money All Over His Country.
About 995 CE, three centuries before Marco Polo’s visit, businessmen in Sichuan were frustrated by the weight of their iron coins and the roadblocks it created for any meaningful business transactions. A merchant in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, started allowing people to leave their sacks of iron coins with him in a secure area, and he would write them receipts for the amount of coin they had deposited their.
Anyone with the receipt could collect the coins, so if someone wanted to buy two pounds of salt, they could simply give a paper receipt for 3 pounds of iron coins, and walk away with the salt. The salt merchant could then use the receipt to buy chickens, and the chicken farmer could use the receipt to buy feed for his chickens! The receipts became enormously popular, and soon the merchant essentially became a bank, watching over people’s money and giving them paper that others would treat as money. Other merchants followed suit, and paper money was invented.
This was the first time that paper money became the norm in any city, and right away the danger presented itself. At some point, merchants realized that they could print receipts even without getting deposits of coin, and people would give them stuff for that paper, not realizing that there was nothing backing the paper! Fraud began to proliferate, people began to distrust paper money, and the government, recognizing how valuable paper money was to commerce, stepped in and took over the printing of money. Bills were printed on paper with many colors of ink, drawings of landscapes, the denomination, and on each one was a strict warning against fraud and counterfeit, which was punished by beheading.
Paper money solved so many problems that commerce flourished in China like nowhere else on the world. Artisans, merchants, and government officials moved into cities, knowing that they could easily buy whatever they needed at the marketplaces that sprang up throughout the cities, and cities flourished. While London and Paris each had less than 100,000 citizens, at least two cities in China had over a million! Farmers could focus on cultivating a single crop in large quantities, knowing that they could sell the surplus and buy whatever else they needed. They could even get loans from banks to expand their farms. Food prices came down, less people were needed to grow food and more people could move to the cities and innovate, people were able to spend money on luxury items, and the economy was booming. By 1200, the Chinese was the richest and most technologically advance society in the world. Paper money was good money!
We’ll pick up with the story of money next week, but let’s first see what we can learn from money so far. We now that money makes commerce flow, and the easier it is to use that money, the more value it has in creating a wealthy and prosperous society. The Chovos Halevavos, the Duties of the Mind, a masterpiece of Jewish philosophy written around 1080 CE, reminds us that we need to thank Hashem for innovations that appear to be human-borne, but are in truth only their because Hashem planted this wisdom in our minds. There is a reason that humans have figured out how to fly airplanes that weigh more than a herd of elephants, and build buildings that scrape the skies, while the smartest of animals haven’t figured out how to make a sandwich! It’s because G-d imbued us with a soul that is in the Image of G-d, and He is a creator, so He gave us the ability to create. And as the Chovos Halevavos explains, at different times in history, Hashem will plant certain ideas into people’s minds, at exactly the time that certain innovations are necessary for the development of the world.
At the time that the Chovos Halevavos was written, paper money had not yet been invented, but that didn’t stop the author, Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Pachuda, from reminding us how thankful we need to be to Hashem that he gave us the wisdom to have money! Gold and silver have very little inherent value. Yes, gold is used in certain industrial applications, but for the most part, these precious metals are not very useful ones, yet Hashem gave us this desire to stockpile them to the point that someone will trade bread for gold! Gold cannot feed a family, heal a person, or keep a house warm in winter, but people willingly trade food, medicines, or firewood for gold! This was part of Hashem’s design that we should have a monetary system because a world of barter is a world in which innovation, trade, commerce, and business has no way to get off the ground. Thank G-d for Money!
But let’s take it one step further. The weight of money is important too. Doing business with sacks full of bronze discs or wagonloads of iron coins is simply too much of a drag. The lighter and more transportable that money became, the more it was able to facilitate development and commerce, and the first country to tackle the paper money issue became the most advance society in the world!
This is true not just in money, but in our Judaism as well. When Judaism sits heavy on our shoulders, when we see the mitzvos as heavy burdens that we are required to carry by the sackful or wagonload, we are not likely to do a lot of mitzvos or embrace our Judaism with joy. The lighter the mitzvos are, the more I look forward to interacting with them, the more I feel like each mitzvah is a stack of crisp $100 bills, the more I want to do them, the more I want to accumulate them!
On Chanuka, we light the candles on the Menorah, which represents Torah wisdom. Fire is the one thing that not only doesn’t get weighed down, it actually jumps upward! The flames of Menorah, the flames that the Macabbees lit, show us that we should approach Torah wisdom as something that not only won’t weigh us down, but will actually lift us up! In the days of the Tabernacle (the mobile Temple the Jews used in the desert), the Ark which held the Torah, would miraculously fly through the air, carrying with it those that were supposed to carry it! The Torah is uplifting to all those that carry it, like the Chanukah lights dancing quietly heavenward. If we don’t have that experience, if we don’t feel the mitzvos and Torah as light and uplifting, we’re probably using the wrong currency.
Let us stare into the candles and appreciate our Judaism. Let’s recognize the gift that Hashem gave us when he gave us the Torah and Mitzvos that are a “Staff of life to all who hold onto it.” Let us give thanks and praise to the Lord Above for giving us the very best currency of all!
Parsha Dvar Torah
“And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him (l’shalom) peacefully.” (Genesis 37:4)
In this week’s parsha, we read about the rift between Joseph and his brothers – one that not only led to Joseph being sold into slavery, but also to the eventual formation of the Jewish people in Egypt. As the rift gathered steam, the Torah notes us that the brothers couldn’t speak peacefully with Joseph. Rashi comments, “From what is stated to their (the brothers) discredit, we may learn something to their credit, that they did not say one thing with their mouth and think differently in their heart.”
Rashi gives the brothers credit for not pretending to be friendly with Joseph while secretly hating him, but still considers their not speaking with him to be a discredit. Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz (1690-1764, Krakow-Altona) explains why it was wrong for them not to speak to him given the fact that they hated him. It is human nature, he explains, for dislike of another person to grow with the passage of time. Without any intervening positive interactions, “dislike” commonly evolves into full-blown hatred.
This would explain the unfortunately reality of people going to their graves with unresolved family feuds that started out as minor squabbles. Issues that could have been resolved earlier on, somehow became insurmountable mountains. Instead of allowing the issue to fester, the offended person could have said, “You know, I was really hurt by what you said/did/didn’t do. I really wish you wouldn’t have said/done that.” The other party would then have the opportunity to apologize, offer a legitimate explanation, say he wouldn’t do it again, or simply say that he didn’t mean to be offensive. The fight could have ended right there, saving years of bitterness and alienation.
It is possibly for this reason that the Torah prohibition “Do not hate your brother in your heart” is immediately followed with, “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” (Lev. 19:17). The Torah seems to imply that if one hates his brother in his heart, he is setting himself up for an eternity of enmity. If you don’t hold the anger in your heart and respectfully rebuke the person, the situation could be resolved without lingering hatred.
This, according to Rabbi Eybeschutz, is the discredit referred to by Rashi regarding Joseph’s brothers. When the Torah testifies that, “ and they could not speak with him peacefully,” it is in effect saying that if they would have spoken to him, even openly telling him what bothered them, it could have been l’shalom, for peace, thus dissolving their enmity. Since they were unwilling to engage Joseph in any sort of dialogue, they ended up increasing their hatred towards him, and eventually sold him into slavery.
After arriving from Europe, one of the preeminent leaders of American Jewry, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986), served as a congregational Rabbi in various communities, including a stint in Toronto. While there, the extremely grateful congregation presented him with a beautiful silver Kiddush cup as a gift. Shortly thereafter, a congregant happened to see him bringing the silver cup to a pawn shop! When the membership learned of this, they were understandably distressed. How insulting was it for him to sell the congregation’s gift!
A congregant was designated to approach the Rabbi to express their displeasure. To his pleasant surprise, Rabbi Kamenetsky explained that he was having the cup assessed to find how much tax he owed for it. As the gift was given in recognition of his service, he considered it taxable income. In addition to the impressive testimony this provides regarding Rabbi Kamenentsky’s integrity, it also shows us the importance of talking things out, and how much resentment and hurt can be avoided if we would simply talk “l’shalom,” for the sake of peace.
This week’s Parsha sort of breaks new ground by beginning to discuss in depth the lives of people other than the patriarchs. Now we start to talk about the lives of their children, the Twelve Tribes. This week’s Parsha begins with the tense relationship between Yosef and his siblings. He felt they were doing certain things wrong, and told his father about it. The brothers became angry with him. Then he had two dreams, the gist of which were that all the brothers were bowing down to him, and these dreams further infuriated the brothers as they felt he was trying to force his rule over them.
One time when Yosef was sent to check on them, while they were tending sheep in Shechem, they made an ad hoc court and condemned him to death for what they felt were serious crimes. Reuven persuaded them out of it, convincing them to throw him into a pit instead. Reuven’s plans was to come back and get Yosef out, but while Reuven went back to serve his father, Yehuda convinced the brothers to sell Yosef to a passing caravan of Ismaelites. Yosef was traded from one group to the next until eventually he was bought by Potiphar, the Chamberlain of Pharaoh.
The brothers brought back Yosef’s tunic to their father covered in blood, which made Yaakov believe that his son was killed by a wild animal. He was deeply grieved and no one was able to properly console him. At this point, Yehuda fell out of favor in the eyes of his brothers for his role in the sale of Yosef, so he moves away from them. In his new land, he marries and builds a family. Through an interesting twist of events, Yehuda ends up living with someone, who he thought was someone else, and one of the resulting offspring ends up being the ancestor of King David and by definition, Moshiach.
In the meantime, Yosef runs into some trouble at his new workplace. He is enormously successful as a servant and soon Potiphar’s house is being run by Yosef. However Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Yosef who was very beautiful and she tried daily to seduce him. Finally one day when everyone was at a pagan festival she came home and tried to force herself onto him. He ran out leaving his coat in her hands. She made a big stink claiming that it was Yosef who tried to force himself onto her, and Yosef gets thrown into jail.
Even in jail he was very successful and soon he was in charge of the whole jail. One day he notices two of his fellow inmates, the royal butler and baker look depressed. He asked them what was wrong and they said that they had dreams they couldn’t interpret. Yosef interprets them both properly. The Parsha concludes with Yosef asking the butler to remind Pharaoh about his, and to get him out of jail, however the butler totally forget Yosef for two years! That’s all Folks!
Quote of the week: If you want to be found, stand where the seeker seeks. ~ Sidney Lanier
Random Fact of the Week: The number of left handed men is double the number of left handed women.
Funny Line of the Week: Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.
Have an Uplifting Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham