We are pleased to introduce “On My Mind,” a new column by Jewish Action Contributing Editor Moishe Bane.
It is hard to overstate the attachment most people have to their belongings. One of the first words uttered by a toddler, often in spirited fashion, is “mine.” Many of us recall our first bicycle and, more likely, our first car. Those of us so privileged surely remember the purchase of our home.
Our quest for and preoccupation with ownership is quite distinct from the pursuit of wealth or even financial security. Another person’s nonconsensual use of even an inexpensive possession of ours offends us, and we feel physically infringed upon by trespass on our property, even when no harm is caused. Whether wealthy or in want, we are protective of our possessions, and we feel personally violated if they are stolen or deliberately damaged.
Most often we think of ownership in reference to stuff, whether as small as a book or a wristwatch or as expansive as a tract of land or a substantial commercial enterprise. But there are additional spheres of ownership. For example, people occasionally claim, or at least imply, ownership of a not-for-profit institution or communal office. Sometimes this assertion is made by virtue of having been a founder or funder, and other times simply by virtue of incumbency.
Ownership may also extend to relationships, usually with unfortunate results. The suggestion that someone “owns” a politician is quite familiar, and, notwithstanding the Emancipation Proclamation, many a callous proprietor treats employees as owned chattel. Misperceptions of ownership are most tragic, however, when they arise in the words and actions of a parent or spouse. In all these examples, individuals are confusing the responsibility to influence with an entitlement to control.
Perhaps a most illustrative example of the subtle line between possession and ownership is how we view our own body. A fierce contention of ownership is that “it is my body, and I can do with it as I like.” This assertion underlies much public policy debate, including heated discourse regarding abortion and euthanasia.
Perhaps we revere ownership because its permanence imparts a sense of security. Or perhaps ownership augments our sense of personal substance and significance as we incorporate that which we own into an expansion of self.
But are these perceptions genuine or illusory? After all, the permanence of ownership is as fleeting as our mortality. And bolstering our self-esteem through acquisitions seems rather lame, if not pitiful. We may feel bigger when we see ourselves as owning things or institutions or people. But in moments of honest introspection, we are forced to concede that embracing such ownership merely obscures, rather than bolsters, our true measure.
The illusion of ownership is further illustrated by the vulnerability of all categories of ownership to the power of the state. Zoning laws restrict how our homes or real property can be built or developed, and the laws of eminent domain and taxes allow any of our possessions to be taken by the state—legally.
Even our bodies are subject to state control. State dominance of our physical selves may arise in the context of public health and safety concerns, the Covid contagion being just one recent example. And an even more dramatic reflection of state dominance is its ability to conscript individuals into the armed forces and then deploy them to the front lines of heated combat.
And yet, ownership feels real and is often consequential. At a minimum, it provides provisional control of both access and decision-making, and certain types of ownership may effectively garner others’ deference and admiration—or at least their attention.
Thus, it is worthwhile to consider whether Torah values would have us cherish and guard our belongings or understand clinging to ownership as mere human foible. Are we entitled to indulge in the immense enjoyment our possessions can generate, or are we bound to moderation and constraint even after being strikingly philanthropic?
Rather than focus on what is permissible, perhaps we need to identify our paradigm. Should we vigorously accumulate and then preserve our possessions, or should we instead idealize and aspire to the practice of the exalted tzaddikim in the legends of our youth who selflessly and indiscriminately gifted away all that passed through their hands?
The Torah’s Respect for Owned Property
Traditionally a youngster’s study of the Talmud begins with the second chapter of tractate Bava Metzia. The text addresses someone who discovers a seemingly abandoned object on public grounds, and explores when that person is permitted to take the object and when efforts must be made to identify its owner.
Due to the educational contours of the text’s Talmudic debate, it is pedagogically appropriate for these passages of Bava Metzia to be chosen as introductory study material. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, however, reportedly explained the choice differently.
Rav Moshe observed that a novice first encountering Talmudic texts will necessarily be compelled to review and repeatedly vocalize the passages. Tradition seeks to take advantage of this inevitable student repetition to inculcate an ethical principle into the moral fabric of a young mind. By beginning the Talmudic journey with the second chapter of Bava Metzia, the student will be repeating over and over the responsibility and respect one must have regarding others’ private property.
That Torah values advance a deep respect for private ownership is perhaps most expressly illustrated in the expansive focus that private property rights enjoy throughout the corpus of Jewish law. In halachah, ownership enjoys extraordinary prominence and deference.
Derogation of Ownership
Notwithstanding the Torah’s express recognition of private ownership, the deference is far from absolute. The halachic obligations of giving bikkurim (first fruit), petter chamor (redemption of a firstborn donkey) and various terumos and ma’aseros (tithes) are examples of halachah reminding us that property ownership is conditional. The laws of shemittah (Sabbatical year) and yovel (Jubilee year) are even more so. Most dramatically compromising the idea of absolute ownership, however, are the expansive halachic powers of eminent domain granted not only to a melech Yisrael (Jewish monarchy) but to beis din (rabbinical court). Hefker beis din hefker (“that which is declared by a court ownerless property is forthwith accounted ownerless property”) is a term familiar to even a relative newcomer to Talmudic and halachic studies.
Rather than being owners, we are actually stewards, entrusted by Hashem with the transient role of using our assets as He would expect of us.
In addition, we are not licensed to ignore the myriad ethical challenges introduced by private property disparities within society. Economists may assert that the deprivation suffered by the unfortunate is not linked to the abundance enjoyed by the prosperous. But contemporary social behavior has not fully shed parallels to the historical exploitation by landed gentry and industrialists of the serfs and the proletariat. Possessions and control continue to be used to evoke jealousy and impose intimidation. Empathy for those without tends to diminish with the accumulation of significant belongings. The pursuit and retention of wealth and property too often brings out the lesser angels within us.
This susceptibility to ugliness is manifest in commercial behavior that may be less than stellar, and in the emergence of unsightly character traits such as callousness and narcissism. These behavioral tendencies raise serious questions regarding the propriety of our embrace of ownership and whether or not holding assets should be a laudatory aspiration.
Another consideration is whether the accumulation of possessions necessarily distracts us from the pursuit of religious growth. Consequently, the derogation of belongings is a view and practice adopted by certain schools within the Torah community. This attitude is conveyed in an oft-repeated story regarding Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, zt”l (1838-1933), the famed Chafetz Chaim, viewed by many as the leading saintly Torah giant of early twentieth-century Jewry.
It is told that the Chafetz Chaim welcomed into his small and meager home a wealthy visitor from afar. The guest, upon observing the sparse furnishings, asked the Chafetz Chaim why the house was bereft of furniture. In response the Chafetz Chaim asked the traveler why he himself was not accompanied by furniture, to which the guest answered that surely one does not bring furniture along on a journey. The Chafetz Chaim replied that he too is on a journey since the world in which we live is merely a way station to Olam Haba, the World to Come.
But other Torah lessons emphasize a different and more venerated outlook regarding possessions.
The Righteous Value their Possessions above All Else
One of the most powerful Talmudic teachings regarding the value of personal belongings is conveyed in describing the actions of Yaakov Avinu immediately prior to his reencounter with his brother Eisav (Bereishis 32:25). The Talmud (Chullin 91a) teaches that Yaakov returned unaccompanied to his family’s earlier camping ground to retrieve small, apparently inexpensive vessels that had been forgetfully left behind.
The Talmud derives from Yaakov’s decision to undertake this arduous journey that the righteous care for their belongings more than for their physical bodies. The motivation for this heightened care, explains the Talmud, is “lefi she’ein poshtin yedeihen b’gezel, because they (the righteous) do not extend their hands to partake in stolen items.”
In the heart of every G-d fearing Jew is the understanding that belongings are precious and treasured because they are gifts from Above.
This teaching seems rather bizarre in two regards. First, how does a premium placed by tzaddikim, the righteous, on mere objects accord with our expectations of the pious? And even more obscure is the Talmud’s second point. What possibly could be the connection between thievery and this prioritization of personal belongings?
The Torah leader and scholar Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839), famously known as the Chasam Sofer, explores these cryptic passages. His explanation resolves the two curiosities while also providing sagacious guidance regarding how to properly view our relationship with ownership.
Tzaddikim, explains the Chasam Sofer, appreciate that each personal possession is lovingly designed, crafted and bequeathed specifically to us by Hashem, as it were. But we receive each gift conditionally, with the expectation that we will use the possession for its rightful purpose.
This profound appreciation compels two reactions. First, just as we cherish and safeguard a gift personally conceived and handcrafted for us by a beloved, we similarly treasure each of our belongings as a bespoke gift from Hashem. And second, we scrupulously avoid squandering or neglecting our possessions because to do so would be violative of the condition of their receipt. Being reckless or indulgent and failing to use our possessions appropriately would deem us to be guilty of having stolen from G-d.
The tzaddik’s appreciation of the preciousness of his possessions is thus interwoven with being meticulous in avoiding thievery, stealing from Hashem.
Stewardship Rather than Ownership
The Chasam Sofer’s understanding of the Gemara’s explanation of Yaakov Avinu’s mindset resolves the tension between our appreciation for ownership and our simultaneous concern that an emphasis on ownership feels self-centered and superficial. Rather than being owners, we are actually stewards, entrusted by Hashem with the transient role of using our assets as He would expect of us. And the same is true of our personal relationships and our communal roles.
We respect, cherish and feel deeply attached to our possessions, but whether thoughtfully or instinctually, this feeling of connection reflects the appreciation that everything we have is a gift from Hashem. We may mistake our deep attachments as a profound sense of ownership. But in the heart of every G-d-fearing Jew is the understanding that belongings are precious and treasured because they are gifts from Above.
Perhaps the ethic that novice students are hopefully inculcating when endlessly repeating the lessons of the second chapter of Bava Metzia is the appreciation that possessions are to be protected and secured, and not be misplaced or lost. After all, if someone fails to embrace being a steward of Hashem’s gifts, the holy stewardship of these gifts may well be lost.
Moishe Bane, president emeritus of the OU, serves as a contributing editor of Jewish Action.