Understanding Personal Finance and the Jewish Faith
The meaning of personal finance can vary depending on your needs, concerns and values. In the Jewish community, money plays a part in ensuring that Jews can maintain their religious and cultural lifestyle as well as pass on traditions to the next generation.
You can learn more about personal finance and the Jewish faith by looking at the expenses individuals incur by living as Jews.
Stereotypes Surrounding Jews and Money
There are many stereotypes related to Jews and money. One of the oldest and most harmful anti-semitic tropes is that Jews control the world economy and the banking industry. This lie was recorded in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and was used by Adolf Hitler as justification for exterminating the Jewish population of Europe. Jews are also portrayed as both greedy and rich, but also cheap.
In reality, Jews are obligated by the Torah to give charity, improve the world and stay honest.
Personal Finance Through the Lens of Sacred Texts
When it comes to money, many Jews — especially those who are religious — will turn to the Torah for insight. The Torah and other works offer guidance on a variety of topics, including giving charity to support one’s community, not stealing and not being greedy.
An important mitzvah, or commandment, that many Jews adhere to is giving tzedakah, or charity. Every Jew, regardless of their financial status, is obligated to give 10% of their earnings to the needy. However, charity can also be considered “volunteering” or doing something else which is positive.
Many will collect cash or spare change in a personal tzedakah box, which can resemble a piggy bank. When it’s full, they’ll donate it to a charity of their choice, such as a homeless shelter, food pantry or old age home. Often, the final donation will be made in the form of a check. Tzedakah boxes also appear in kosher grocery stores and other Jewish businesses so shoppers can easily make donations which will be given to the needy.
Jews are not obligated to make a set number of donations per year, but many observant individuals will give tzedakah before Shabbat, which is the day of rest. It is also common to set aside money for charitable causes before holidays, such as Yom Kippur.
Giving on a Budget
If you have a limited budget to stick to every month, you can still create a charity plan that works within your limits. Use the following tips to make a giving routine.
Spare some change
Instead of losing coins to the depths of your car, empty out your pockets each night to maximize giving. Regardless of your financial status, you are unlikely to miss a few pennies in the long run.
Donate what you can afford
A simple act of kindness can go a long way. You may want to donate a large sum of money, but stay within your means. Consider donating in increments of 18, which represents chai, or life, in the Jewish tradition.
Use tzedakah to stay on budget
When you factor charity into your budget, you will be better prepared and cognizant of the money you have leftover.
It is explicitly forbidden for Jews to steal, even if they intend to return the money or object right away. Jews also cannot knowingly buy an object that has been stolen. When it comes to business transactions, Jews must be as honest as possible and treat the other party with the utmost respect. For example, while it’s possible to take advantage of clients by being dishonest about the costs associated with carrying out a task, the Torah puts an emphasis on surrounding oneself with people who have strong moral values and will not cheat.
If a Jewish person damages or destroys another person’s property, they also have to make restitution. In the Torah it says, "If one kills an [other's] animal, he must pay for it, [the value of] a life for a life." (Leviticus 24:18).
Living Within Your Means
The Talmud, which is a collection of writings that cover Jewish law and tradition, says that it is important to have enough money to survive and be comfortable, but it’s critical not to be greedy. Jews believe that all wealth comes from God — since you cannot take money with you when you die, you should be humble when making money.
The Cost of Living a Jewish Life
Maintaining a Jewish lifestyle can be extremely expensive due to the high cost that living in accordance with Jewish law requires. Common expenses include kosher food, tuition for Jewish day schools and tickets to attend synagogue on important religious holidays.
While not all Jews keep kosher, the ones who do pay a premium for kosher meat and other products. The cost of kosher meat can be more than double the price of non-kosher meat because there must be a supervisor to ensure an animal is slaughtered correctly. If a cow is inspected and found to have a disease, it is prohibited to use its meat. This screening process takes time and money, as does salting the meat, which is required under Jewish law.
Kosher food always has a special label. Some mainstream grocers will have a special section for kosher meats and cheeses, while other stores will cater specifically to the Jewish community and only carry Kosher food, meaning shoppers don’t have to check for a hecksher, or Kosher label.
Price Comparison for Common Kosher and Unkosher Foods
1 pound of chicken
$6.09 (Livonia Glatt)
1 bottle of wine
$8.97 (Baron Herzog)
$6.99 (Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut)
1 frozen pizza
$3.98 (Red Baron)
Many Jews of all backgrounds send their children to Jewish schools which offer both a religious and secular education. Tuition at Jewish day schools can be costly. Many elementary and middle schools charge about $25,000, on average, per year, while high schools charge upwards of $40,000, on average, per year, making it comparable to college tuition.
Schools and community members offer tuition assistance, but families may find themselves sacrificing vacations and other luxuries to afford the cost. As a result, some Jews choose to send their kids to public school during the weekday and Hebrew school on Sundays. Some Hebrew schools charge $800, on average, for the academic year.
Many costs arise during the Jewish calendar year. Food for Passover can be particularly expensive because religious Jews adhere to rules which obligate them to rid their pantry and refrigerator of most food used during the rest of the year. During Passover, Jews must buy food that is strictly supervised and free of chametz, or leavened bread.
Throughout the rest of the year, religious objects like Shabbat candle holders; boards for challah, or bread; siddurim, or prayer books; lulavim, or the fronds of a date palm tree, and etrogim, or yellow citrons, must be purchased.
Consider these four tips for staying on budget.
Look for cheap Kosher recipes
For religious Jews, paying for Kosher food is an unavoidable reality of life. Sites like Kosher On A Budget offer delicious recipes in addition to coupons, deals and advice which can help you save.
Save meat for special occasions
All fruits and vegetables are kosher in their unprocessed form. By keeping a mostly plant-based diet outside of Shabbat, the Jewish holidays and celebrations, where it is customary to eat meat, Jews can cut back on their kosher food costs.
Check out your local Chesed Fund
Chesed Houses are like the Goodwill of the Jewish world. Designated ‘houses’ stock everything from extra tables for a family celebration, or simcha, to financial assistance for therapy for a struggling child. If you are looking for a religious item, you will most likely be able to find it on the cheap.
Talk to friends traveling to Israel
If you know someone traveling to Israel, consider requesting Judaica. Mezuzot scrolls which are hung on doorposts in Jewish homes can cost $25-$30 in Israel, compared to upwards of $65 in the U.S. Tefillin used by men during prayer services can also cost $300 at small shops in religious neighborhoods in Israel such as Mea Shearim, compared to $600 to $850 at some Judaica stores in the U.S.
Being Financially Responsible in the Jewish Faith
While living a Jewish life can be expensive, there are ways to make it more affordable. You can find organizations and services to assist you with your finances, discover additional ways to save money and scale back expenses, such as school tuition, that is best for you and your family.
Cutting Back on Tuition
When it comes to Jewish schools, scholarships are available for families who do not have the financial resources to pay, and schools may give discounts if more than one child is enrolled. If a parent works at the school, they might be able to receive a discount on tuition for their children as well. Some schools make it a point to never turn away a child who wants a Jewish education. Instead, they will raise funds for the Jewish child in need.
Like others, Jews may also be eligible to qualify for school vouchers or tax credits which can help lower costs. Here are additional resources that can help:
- Tuition Calculators: Schools such as Westchester Day School have an online calculator which lets you enter in your adjusted gross income and immediately see the enrollment cost.
- Open Door Program: The San Diego Jewish Academy has cut tuition in half, reasoning that more students will enroll and the school will compensate for the costs. The bet has proved accurate — and more schools may take the same path.
Utilizing Community Resources
There are various resources that Jews can tap into if they are in financial straits. If a woman is getting married and she can’t afford a bridal gown, for example, she can go to a gemach, which is the Jewish version of a recycling agency. There, she can find a gown to borrow for the big day, and she may only need to pay for cleaning the dress after she’s worn it.
There are also special gemachs for items including baby toys, medical equipment, chuppahs (a wedding canopy), children’s clothing, centerpieces for events and much more.
Below are a few resources Jews can turn to for support, housing assistance, and food delivery and meal services.
- Chasdei Chashi L’Kallah: This organization helps newlyweds get set up in their new homes by supplying them with furniture and dining sets.
- Jewish Family Service: If you live close to a Jewish community, there may be a Jewish Family Service which offers home-delivered kosher meals and community dining options for seniors and adults with disabilities.
- TomChei: Organizations like TomChei can help Jews to find jobs and start businesses. They also provide clothing and furniture, assist with utilities and rent and help children obtain a Jewish education.
- Birthright: Birthright offers free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never been to the Holy Land.
- In Shifra’s Arms: This organization provides support to pregnant women by offering free counseling, care packages, baby clothing, equipment, maternity clothing and financial aid.
- Bikur Cholim: Bikur Cholim provides free meals to patients in need and helps them fund medical treatment, in addition to organizing visitors to go and visit people who are sick. Cities around the U.S. have their own Bikur Cholim, so turn to Google to find your local branch.
- Global Kindness: This Los Angeles-based organization ensures that needy people can gain access to kosher food. They’ve helped 2,000 families around the world.
Pioneering New Jewish Communities
While Jews tend to live in cities that may be more expensive, such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, moving to a smaller Jewish community in a more affordable state could be financially beneficial. If you are more deeply religious and highly active in an organization like Chabad, you may also be paid to establish a Jewish community in a rural area.
Some organizations will pay you to host a Shabbat meal and bring community members together. Below are a few organizations that offer funding.
- One Table: This organization offers funding, playlists, guides and more so that Jews come together after a busy week to have an enjoyable Shabbat meal.
- Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies: The foundation offers a host of generous grantmaking, operating and advocacy activities funded by the Schusterman family.
- Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence: The fund offers grants for programs and initiatives that strengthen Jewish organizations and bring awareness to Jewish culture, heritage, history and contributions.
Expert Insight on Managing Costs
MoneyGeek spoke with two financial advisors and a rabbi to provide expert insight into personal finance and the Jewish faith.
- What are some of the different ways in which the Torah discusses money and finances? And how do we relate to those teachings today?
- What are the major costs of living a Jewish life in the United States today, and how do people typically cover these costs?
Financial Advisor at Kairos Wealth Advisors of Raymond James
Investment Advisor at Miracle Mile, Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
Senior Rabbi and Director of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and Rabbi of Knesset Israel Synagogue of Beverlywood
Various resources offer support to members of the Jewish community in financial need.
- Jewish Free Loans: Cities across the U.S. have Jewish free loan organizations, where those of all races and religions can apply for interest-free loans for personal or business matters.
- The Jewish Federations of North America: This organization represents 146 Federations and over 300 communities which raise money to support social welfare, social services and educational needs.
- PJ Library: The library offers free storybooks for Jewish children from birth through 12 years of age — and it takes less than a few minutes to sign up.
- Chabad: Chabad is an Orthodox Jewish organization that operates on donations from the community and provides free Shabbat and holiday meals to any Jew in need.
- Scholarships.com: A variety of scholarships are available for Jewish students looking for funding for higher education.
- MAZON: MAZON is an organization that gives $2.5 million to 52 local organizations across the U.S. and in Israel in order to fight hunger.
About the Author
- Aish. "Jewish View of Money." Accessed July 15, 2021.
- Chabad.org. "Why Is Judaism So Expensive?." Accessed July 15, 2021.
- Fedweb. "Jewish Poverty in the United States." Accessed July 15, 2021.
- Jewish Virtual Library. "Charity (Tzedakah): What is Tzedakah?." Accessed July 15, 2021.
- My Jewish Learning. "Ask the Expert: Kosher Meat." Accessed July 15, 2021.
- My Jewish Learning. "Jews and Finance." Accessed July 15, 2021.