The Jewish sages of 2000 years ago asked, “Who is Rich?” And they had very interesting answers to this question – some which may surprise you – but may also help you imagine a new way to think about your relationship with money and the the positive ways that you can earn, spend, and use your money to create a happier you and more positive world.

Young people often make a tragic mistake when thinking about the kind of work they will do because our culture has become one that mistakenly believes that great wealth equals happiness. A study was recently completed of 200,000 university students and they were asked about their life goals. 77% of them stated that making money was their most important goal. How can you blame them? Store bookshelves are overflowing with titles about how to make money money money? However, the research shows that there is only a slight relationship between money and happiness.

This may surprise you, but studies show that for the average U.S. Household, an income of approx $75,000 per year is what you need for happiness and wellbeing, and adjusting for cost of living depending on where you live, there is only a slight increase in happiness as income rises above $75,000 all the way to infinity. And in fact, there is a point where more income becomes counterproductive to happiness and wellbeing. Seems hard to believe — so many of people think that happiness comes with affluence — but the research suggests otherwise.

In the Torah, there are over 100 mitzvot/commandments concerning the fitness of one’s money. In fact, there are more commandments having to do with the kashrut of money than there are having to with the kashrut of food and dietary laws. Among all the issues related to money in Judaism, for me, one stands out the most and that is the question, “who is rich?”

The answer, is, “me.” I know that may surprise you coming from a rabbi. You might be thinking that the richest person must be a famous business person, or a tech inventor, or an major industrialists. But, you’d be wrong. I am the richest and I tell that to my children regularly when they ask about money and wealth and materials possessions and big houses and fancy cars. At their age, they believe that the richest people have the most things and the most money – but then I have to remind them once again, “You know, I don’t have any of those things but I’m still the richest person you know.”

And that’s because I follow the teaching of the Jewish sage Ben Zoma who when asked the question, “who is rich? He replied, He is who is happy with his lot.” And I, am happy with my lot.

I am happy with my lot because I follow three facts that the science of wellbeing and happiness have shown us about about how to use money to raise one’s level of positivity. #1. Invest not in material things, but in positive experiences. 2.  Spend money on creating time. And 3. Spend any money and invest in others.

This may be a very different approach to thinking about money than you have considered before,  but modern day research has shown us what Judaism has taught for over 2000 years, the purpose of living a Jewish life is not about making money, it is about creating meaning and purpose. So now let’s see each of these principles to happier money in a spiritual context.


#1. Invest in experiences.

We all have different interests and personality styles — and the experiences that may bring me incredible happiness, like adventure travel and being in nature and discovering new places with my family — may be different than experiences that bring  you happiness. You may like beaches or seeing famous works of art and museum hopping, there are endless examples really — but whatever the experiences are, they are very personal to you and the general rule of thumb about positive experiences is to

  1. Have the experiences with other people to create real social connection
  2. Have an experience that you’ll enjoy sharing the story with people for many years to come
  3. Link the experience to your sense of purpose or your ideal self

Here’s a personal example. 20 years ago I started my training to be a rabbi in Israel. Over one holiday break, I formed a group of friends to travel to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to spend 8 days walking in the desert. We were interested in seeing first hand where the oldest stories of the bible came from and to imagine how the desert environment may have shaped the mindset of the ancient Israelites.

The final two days were spent at Santa Caterina, a 4th century Monastery at the foot of Jaabul Musa, arabic for the Mountain of Moses. We woke up on the last day of our trip to hike to the top of Jaabul Musa to watch the sunrise and to visit the shrine that was dedicated to the memory of when God gave the 10 Commandments – the tablets to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai.

Even though it was 20 years ago, I still remember the faces of my friends as we ascended the mountain, I remember the feeling of arriving at the top and watching the sun emerge over the Jordan Valley, and I remember feeling inspired and intellectually curious. All of us recall those 8 days as a highlight of our lives and whenever we see each other, we’re bound to end up referring to something that happened on that trip. And I have told others about that trip and shared the photos with countless people, many many times. I cannot remember how much the trip cost in terms of money, but whatever it did cost, the money led to an experience that has added to the richness of my life and I cherish those memories.


#2. Spend Money to Create Time

The second fact of happy money is to spend money on creating time. This is a curious way to think about wellbeing and money since time seems fixed. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. 525,600 minutes to a year. I’m talking about something different. I’m talking about using your time to create experiences. You know the phrase, Time is Money. So become time affluent. Here’s how. Thinking of ways to spend money on time and experiences –rather than thinking of ways to spend money on new material possessions — increases your sense of happiness and wellbeing because you are engaged in the mental process of thinking about engaging in activities which changes your mindset. Instead of thinking that Time should be spent on making money, you’ll be thinking about how to spend Money on making time.

There is a Talmudic tale of an old man who was planting trees. He was asked by a passerby: “Why do you plant the trees since you will never enjoy the fruit?” The old man replied, “I found trees planted by my ancestors from which I enjoyed the fruit. Surely, it is my duty to plant trees that those who come after me might enjoy their fruit.” This man was busying himself with creating time on an eternal level — creating a legacy for people to enjoy the fruits of his time.


#3. Invest in Others

The third use of money to create wellbeing and happiness is to spend it on others and to invest in others. When Ben Zoma was asked the question, who is rich? He answered, “he who is happy with his lot.” But Rabbi Tarfon answered this question differently. When he was asked who is rich, Rabbi Tarfon replied, “he who possesses a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields, and a hundred workers working in them.”

This new third way, inspired by Rabbi Tarfon, is the path to create double happiness — happiness for yourself and wellbeing for another.

This teaches that using money on one’s own happiness is not enough — one must also spend money on others. It’s ultimately for the 100 workers working on the field that are important to Rabbi Tarfon. He who employs and gives to others creates opportunities for people to have money and pursue their own happiness. This compounds wellbeing and happiness in the world.  

There was a mega study conducted from 2006-2008 by Gallup International in over 130 countries to gauge the level of wellbeing and happiness in the world. More than 200,000 people took the study and one of the questions had to do with giving charity. In 120 of these countries, people who gave charity in the last month reported greater levels of happiness and wellbeing than those who did not.

In Judaism, the Hebrew word for charity is tzedakah. Giving Tzedakah is a hallmark of living a Jewish life and is one of the key tenets of Positive Judaism. To give 10% of your income, as a minimum, to charity. This is how one becomes rich.

Here we have it: by starting with the assumption that income is over $75,000, which by the way, is not always an easy task in the working environment we have today and we should never take for granted the real financial challenges that many face, but we now have a clear idea of how to become happier by using money — by spending your money on experiences, by making time out of money, and by investing in others.

Even though I admitted to you up front that I am the richest person, there’s room for you to also be the richest person – rich in terms of your life. So now, let me wish you much wisdom and good fortune as you journey to becoming richer in meaning in your life and using your money to positively raise your own happiness and the wellbeing of others.


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