Maimonides on equality and the problem of expensive tastes

Thursday, 26 November, 2020 - 4:30 pm

Maimonides-2.jpgIn this essay, I would like to explore the question of equality in the thought of Maimonides and the problem of expensive tastes. The question is: does Maimonides view society as individuals with individual needs or as a collective, and if individuals, when distributing resources, should a person be compensated for one’s expensive tastes that a person may have? I will say from the outset that there may be more than way to understand the view of Maimonides on the ideal model for society, and indeed, some have argued that the Torah supports a socialist model, drawing from the laws of tithe and sabbatical, some have argued a capitalist model – one is allowed to own and sell land according to Jewish, and some have argued neither; it has its own model.


In the book Social Vision, in the chapter The Principle of Reciprocity (p. 125) it in fact supports the latter that the ideal is not in support of socialism or capitalism but rather a world built on reciprocity, where the individual is not eliminated by the collective and the idea of individual competitiveness is also not the aim, but rather the ideal is for the individual to be allowed to flourish but to be channelled to a higher plane; the life of the spirit. In other words, society can be a combination of both: an increased emphasis on the flourishing of the individual is the ultimate telos of the collective life. If I understand correctly, Sacks would call this a covenantal society, while Social Vision would call this a society based on the principle of reciprocity, that is predicated on allowing space for individual flourishing. I would like to argue that this is also the view of Maimonides, as I will set forth, and perhaps a support for the ideas found in the book Social Vision.


Price fixing


I will start by saying that the question of the ideal economic model in Jewish teaching is subject to a well know dispute, highlighted in a paper entitled modern economic theory in the Talmud, by Prof. Robert Aumann, between Maimonides and Rashbam in relation to economic theory. The Talmud presents a dispute (Baba Batra 89a):


The Sages taught that the phrase: “You shall not have,” teaches that the court appoints market inspectors to supervise the accuracy of measures. The Talmud infers: But the court does not appoint market inspectors for supervising market prices. The Talmud relates: The house of the Nasi appointed market inspectors for supervising both measures and prices. Shmuel said to his student, the Sage Karna: Go out and teach them that one appoints market inspectors for supervising measures but one does not appoint market inspectors for prices.


Karna went out and taught them that one appoints market inspectors for supervising both measures and prices. Shmuel, hearing what he had done, said to him: What is your name? He replied: Karna. Shmuel said: Let a horn [karna] emerge in his eye. A horn, i.e., a growth of flesh, emerged in his eye. The Talmud asks: And Karna, in accordance with whose opinion did he hold, which led him to disregard his teacher’s statement? He held in accordance with that which Rami bar Ḥama says that Rabbi Yitzḥak says: One appoints market inspectors for supervising both measures and prices, due to swindlers, to prevent people from using smaller measures or from selling at a steep price while falsely claiming that they are selling superior-quality merchandise.


Rashbam writes:


But nor for prices: in order they should sell dearly. This is common sense; price control is not needed. For if one seller sells dearly, then someone who needs money will sell cheaply, and the buyers will go to him; and then the first one will also sell cheaply.


This is called by founding father of modern economics Adam Smith as the principle of the invisible hand. This is based on the principle of incentives that allows the markets to set itself.


Maimonides, however, decides differently. He writes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mechira 14:1):


Nevertheless, the court is obligated to regulate prices and appoint officers of the law, so that people at large will not be able to reap whatever profit they desire. Instead, the court should regulate that a person should earn only a profit of a sixth. A seller should not profit more than a sixth of his investment.


Similarly, Maimonides writes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Geneiva, 8:20):


The court is obligated to appoint police in every city and town to inspect the stores periodically, correct the scales and measures, and set the prices. They are permitted to beat any person who possesses an unjust measure or weight or an improper balance according to his capacity, and to fine him as the court sees fit to enforce the matter. Whenever a person raises prices and sells at a higher price, he may be beaten and compelled to sell at the ordinary market price.


It would seem then that Maimonides is for regulatory price fixing so to limit competition and excessive profit and so that society should be more just and equal.[1] I would like to present however a more thorough discussion on Maimonides’ view on equality. Does Maimonides support any form of equality, whether strict equality or any of the other forms of equality discussed in political philosophy. Modern political theorists have dismissed the idea of strict equality but other notions of equality are discussed: equal welfare, equality of resources, equality of needs, equality of rights and equal opportunity. I’m not a political theorist but I would like to present an interesting discussion found in the work in the Talmud and Maimonides on the idea of equality and justice that touches on one of the great debates that raged in Oxford in the 21st century between Ronald Dwarkin and GA Cohen. It pertains to the concept of equality of welfare or utility or happiness or wellbeing. The claim is that if people are morally equal, then they’re entitled to have equal wellbeing. This allows for unequal distribution, since not everyone needs glasses, for example, but equal wellbeing. The concept of equality of welfare is primarily countered by what is called by Dwarkin the problem of expensive tastes. The argument is that it is intuitive that someone who has expensive tastes should be satisfied based on the concept of equality of welfare. This problem, he argues, makes equality of welfare unjust. He therefore argues for equality of resources, whereby everyone should start with equal resources and people should be allowed to develop their resources as they choose. To counter the problem of expensive tastes is a distinction between brute luck and choice luck. A person who has inherited a certain lifestyle and a choice lifestyle that a person has chosen to develop on their own. Brute luck should be compensated, whereas choice luck should not be compensated for. This distinction however is further narrowed by GA Cohen who argues that choice luck made by value judgement should also be compensated for. Only flimsy choice luck should not be compensated for. Dwarkin argues the opposite: deliberate value judgement choice luck should not be compensated, whereas spare of the moment choice luck should be compensated for. This debate goes a lot further and becomes a lot more complicated in the literature on this subject but I have outlined the overall positions in this subject.


I would like to point out that this debate is the subject of a fascinating Talmudic text and a specific interpretation of this text may be found in the text of Maimonides and a further interpretation in the work of Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson (1860-1920) and the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rebbi Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1994).


Three stories in the Talmud (Ketubot 37b):


The Talmudic text is discussing the biblical text in Deuteronomy (15:8): But you shall surely open your hand to him, and shall surely lend him ‘sufficient for his deficiency in that which is deficient for him.’ The Talmud extrapolates that this verse is referring to not just a loan but generally helping one who needs help:


The Sages taught: Concerning an orphan boy who has come to marry, the community tries its utmost to provide for all of his needs. The charities rent a house for him, arrange for him a bed and all his utensils, and thereafter they marry him a wife, as it is stated: “But you shall surely open your hand to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his deficiency in that which is deficient for him” (Deuteronomy 15:8). With regard to the phrase “sufficient for his deficiency,” this is referring to the house. “Which is deficient”; this is referring to a bed and table. “For him [lo]”; this is referring to a wife. And similarly, the verse states: “I will make him [lo] a helpmate for him” (Genesis 2:18), when G-d created a wife for Adam.


The Talmud then goes further deriving from the biblical text the following principle in social justice:


Concerning this issue, the Sages taught: “Sufficient for his deficiency”; this teaches that you are commanded with respect to the pauper to support him, but you are not commanded with respect to him to make him wealthy, as the obligation encompasses only that which he lacks, as indicated by the word deficient. However, the verse also states: “Which is deficient for him”; this includes even a horse upon which to ride and a servant to run in front of him for the sake of his stature, if necessary. For someone accustomed to these advantages, their absences constitute a true deficiency, not an extravagant indulgence.


The Talmud relates a story to support the above principle:


They said about Hillel the Elder that he obtained for a poor person of noble descent a horse upon which to ride and a servant to run in front of him. One time he did not find a servant to run in front of him, and Hillel himself ran in front of him for three mil, to fulfill the dictate “which is deficient for him.”


The principle appears to be thus far that one must compensate a person for their loss of expensive lifestyle, whereas another person who is not accustomed to such a lifestyle need not be compensated. The Talmud however appears to continue by presenting a distinction between how the person came about to become accustomed to an expensive lifestyle.


Brute luck and choice luck in the Talmud


1.     Fresh meat story – granted


The Sages taught: There was an incident involving the people of the Upper Galilee, who bought for a poor person of noble descent from the city of Tzippori a litra of meat every day. The Talmud asks: If they provided him with the reasonable ration of a litra of meat, what is the novelty in this incident? Why does it bear repeating? Rav Huna said: It was a litra of meat of poultry, which is very expensive. And if you wish, say instead that for the weight of a litra of coins, they bought him actual red meat. The price of ordinary meat was so expensive that they had to pay the exorbitant price of a litra of coins. Rav Ashi said they did not spend a litra of coins for him. Rather, there, in the Galilee, it was a small village, and every day they would lose an entire animal just for him. They would slaughter an animal daily, simply to provide him with fresh meat, although there was otherwise no market for such a plentiful supply of meat in the village.


2.     Fatty meat and aged wine story – not granted - own fault


The Talmud relates another incident concerning charity. A certain person came before Rabbi Neḥemya to request charity. He said to him: On what do you normally dine? He said to him: I usually dine on fatty meat and aged wine. Rabbi Neḥemya asked him: Is it your wish to belittle yourself and partake together with me in a meal of lentils, which is my regular food? He partook with him of lentils, and he died, since he was not accustomed to this food. Rabbi Neḥemya said: Woe to this one who was killed by Neḥemya. The Talmud wonders: On the contrary, Rabbi Neḥemya should have said: Woe to Neḥemya who killed this one. The Talmud responds: Rather, Rabbi Neḥemya meant that it was he, the pauper, who should not have pampered himself so much. The poor man was to blame for his own death. His excessive indulgence rendered him incapable of digesting simple foods such as lentils.


3.     Fattened hen and aged wine story – questioned but granted


The Talmud relates another story. A certain person came before Rava to request charity. He said to him: On what do you normally dine? He said to him: On a fattened hen and aged wine. He said to him: And were you not concerned for causing a burden to the community by expecting such opulent foods? He said to him: Is that to say that it is from their funds that I eat? I eat from the support of the Merciful One. This would seem to be a reasonable argument, as we already learned that in the verse “the eyes of all wait for You, and You give them their food in its time” (Psalms 145:15), the phrase: At their time, is not stated, rather “in its time.” (Rashi - “in its time”:  בעתו - הכל לפי מה שהוא צריך כל יחיד ויחיד לפי לימודו)

This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, gives each and every one his personally appropriate sustenance at its proper time, and the community is merely His agent in discharging His will. Therefore, the man is justified in maintaining his standard. In the meantime, while they were talking, Rava’s sister, who had not seen him for thirteen years, came. And as a gift, she brought him a fattened hen and aged wine. Rava said to himself: What is this that happened in front of me that suddenly I am brought food that I do not usually eat? He then understood that this was a providential response to what he had earlier said to the man. Rava said to him: I have responded [na’aneti] to your contention. Arise and eat.


In the above cases, there seems to be a contradiction whether expensive tastes should be compensated for or not. While in the cases of the servant running before the horse and providing fresh meat in a small village, the needs of the person was granted, in the case of the fattened hen and aged wine, the needs of the person was questioned and only provided by a miracle, and Rabbi Nehemiah outright rejected the expensive needs of the pauper who requested fatty meat and aged wine, as being excessive and did not take responsibility for his death, when he was only given lentils. These cases are reconciled by a key aspect in the cases, where in the case of the servant running before the horse and providing fresh meat in a small village it relates to a person from noble descent. He was accustomed to the expensive tastes not due to his choice. In the case of the fattened hen and aged wine and fatty meat and aged wine, in the story of Rabbi Nehemiah, the expensive tases were due to the person’s own choice, and therefore need not be compensated for. This distinction appears to be the same and validation of the argument that a distinction may be made between brute luck and choice luck.


Rabbi Jonah of Gerondi (1200-1263) in the 13th century and Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631) makes this distinction when he clarifies that the case of providing a horse and servant is only applicable when the pauper comes from a wealthy family and is accustomed to these advantages from his parents or from a very young age. [2]


Maimonides - Mishneh Torah


Maimonides in his legal work Mishneh Torah, however, when presenting this law, ignores the distinction between brute luck and choice luck that I mplkied by the case studies the Talmud presents and states that in all cases a persoj’s expensive tastes should be compensated. Maimonides writes (Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 7:3):


One is commanded to give to a poor person according to what he lacks. If he has no clothes, they clothe him. If he has no utensils for a house, they buy [them] for him. If he does not have a wife, they arrange a marriage for him. If [the poor person] is a woman, they arrange a husband for marriage for her. Even if it was the custom of [a person who was rich but is now] a poor person to ride on a horse with a servant running in front of him, and this is a person who fell from his station, they buy him a horse to ride upon and a servant to run in front of him, as it is said (Deut. 15:8) Sufficient for whatever he needs. You are commanded to fill whatever he lacks, but you are not commanded to make him wealthy.


Guide for the Perplexed 3:53


Maimonides’ view in the Guide for the Perplexed that was written in Judeo Arabic and translated into Hebrew by Samuel Ibn Tibbon (c. 1165–1232) appears to also follow this view. In the Friedlander translation of the Hebrew in the third volume, ch. 53, he writes:[3] ‘The term ẓedakah is derived from ẓedek, "righteousness"; it denotes the act of giving everyone his due, and of showing kindness to every being according as it deserves.’ In ‘Ethical Writings of Maimonides’ by Raymond L. Weiss (NYU Press),[4] it translates as follows: ‘The word ẓedakah is derived from ẓedek, which means justice; justice being the granting to everyone to whom something is due, that which is due to him and giving to every being that it deserves.’ While Maimonides clarifies that the sentence ‘the granting to everyone to whom something is due’ refers to payment of a wage or return of a collateral to a poor person, the second half of the statement: ‘and giving to every being that it deserves’ it unclear. The word ‘deserves’ that is found in both Friedlander and Weiss’ translation is a translation of the Hebrew כפי הראוי לו– that is usually translated as according to what is worthy, proper or appropriate for him. In a well-known Ashkenaz Shabbathymn sung on Friday night, it is translated as ‘befitting him.’ This is a translation of the Judeo-Arabic Maimonides uses: אסתיהאלה.


In the commentary of Afudi and by Shem-Tov ben Joseph ibn Falaquera (ca. 1225–1295), they seem to understand that the idea of zedakah in the context of yosher – justice – is limited to not paying a wage, which is owed to them but relating to the healing of the sick or rescuing someone in a situation of distress. Helping such people is virtuous and constitutes the definition of zedakah and yosher – righteousness and justice. This is fact seems to be what Maimonides continues to be saying in the chapter.


The word re-u-yah is in fact used in a legal context, and is similar to the use of the Greek word k’nimos, meaning law or custom. This may be compared to the phrase 'but is fit for him according to the law (v’hee re-u-yah lo min ha-chok),’ found in the Qumran Temple Scroll, Col. 6.[5] Maimonides, then, does not appear to be saying that society should grant each individual according to what they are lacking, even if they have expensive tases, but more within a framework of justice in cases similar to repayment of a loan or helping a person in distress. Justice thus may be only applicable for a person who is legally deserving or lacking basic needs.


In 1915, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson writes,[6] however, that the meaning of the text in the Guide for the Perplexed – that which is deserving or perhaps more accurately befitting him - is in fact saying the same as what Maimonides writes in his legal code Mishneh Torah that one should give each person what they are lacking, that includes even a horse and servant. This interpretation of Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed is repeated in a number of places by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.[7] In Sefer Hamamarim, chapter 6, he summarises the view of Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed: ‘Zedakah is the idea of justice to give to each person according what is befitting him (k’fi ha-ra-uy lo) but kindness is to grant kindness in a greater measure than is due to them.’ He then explains: The idea of this is, as is known, that with zedakah it states: sufficient for his deficiency; but you are not commanded with respect to him to make him wealthy, etc, alluding to the imperative to supply someone who is accustomed even a horse and a servant.


In summary, according to the latter commentary and as adapted by the Rebbe, Maimonides’ view is, in both his philosophical work and legal code, that justice (zedakah) involves providing for each individual what they are lacking even to compensate them for their expensive tastes that they may have developed by their own choice; no distinction is made between brute luck and choice luck. This presents a question: what is the justification for such a view?[8]


One can argue that this supports the view that once should be compensated for judgement value choice bad luck. One may summarise the view of Maimonides as supporting compensation for the poor in the case of brute luck or choice luck when the development of an expensive taste was based on judgement value.


There are two further few points to make in this regard. Marvin Fox writes in Interpreting Maimonides:[9] ‘Maimonides shows a remarkably sensitive concern for the needs of the poor, their feelings, and their dignity. No codifier in Jewish law exceeded him in zeal for protection of the needy, or in eloquence in legislating their cause. He repeatedly insists, for example, that festival celebrations must be characterized not primarily by involvement in our own pleasures, but firth and foremost by providing food and meeting other needs for the deprived members of the society. His concern with charity is so deep that he makes awareness and acceptance of these commandments a condition for valid conversion.’ Maimonides, thus, may be attempting to shape a society that is based on extreme compassion.


A final consideration is, drawing from a point made by the Rebbe in a discourse presented in 1969 relating to this text of the Talmud about expensive tastes. This is also consistant with what we began with: the subject of a society based on reciprocity and one that allows for the flourishing of the individual, especially when intended for a higher purpose, the life of the spirit. The first point made is that the reason for the notion that we take into consideration a person’s expensive tastes is because the person has become accustomed to these tastes (darko be-kach) and is thus existential to him. This is somewhat different to being merely befitting him due to something that he has had in the past.


The philosophical underpinning to this theory is based on the mystical idea presented in 1915 and again in 1969, that the two concepts of compensating basic provision and luxury provision parallels two concepts of Divine radiance: one that permeates and gives life to the world and one that transcends but is the source of life that permeates and sustains. The former parallels a poor person who is lacking in basic needs, while the latter parallels the lacking in something that is a luxury but is still lacking, since the person has become accustomed to it. In reality, these two deficiencies are both existential. This is similar to the Midrashic teaching that after the world had been created on day six, the world was complete, while still lacking the idea of rest that was manifest on the Shabbat. The resting of the Shabbat, as opposed to the creating force that was manifest in the six days of creation, reflects the transcendence of G-d. These two concepts in the Divine are not however two separate concepts as the world on the basic level of existence is in fact sustained essentially by the higher Divine radiance.


One can argue, then, that just as a person needs one’s basic needs met, a person existentially also needs to find meaning and to flourish. Even if this seems secondary, and may be a cause for inequality, as each individual flourishes according to one’s capability, it is also existential. The need to flourish is an existential need, as it brings also meaning and purpose. Thus, although one’s individual tastes, connected to a person’s flourishing – especially when living for a higher purpose – may cause inequality and appear unjust, it should also be viewed as inseparable to one’s basic needs and should therefore be provided for in the notion of social justice.



[1] Maimonides discusses the Messianic era whereby there will such abundance of materialism that there will be no need for competition (Melachim uMilchamot - Chapter 12:5): ‘In that era, there will be neither famine or war, envy or competition for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God. Therefore, the Jews will be great sages and know the hidden matters, grasping the knowledge of their Creator according to the full extent of human potential, as Isaiah 11:9 states: 'The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed."’ Such a state occurred in the time of Solomon (I Kings 10:21): ‘And all of the king's drinking vessels were of gold, and all the utensils of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; none was of silver, [since] it was reckoned with as nothing in the days of Solomon.’ Also (II Chronicles 9:20): ‘And all King Solomon's drinking vessels were gold, and all the vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of superior gold; silver was not reckoned as anything in Solomon's time.’

[2] The Gaonim make a distinction whether his poverty has become known or not. If it has not then his dignity is taken into consideration and should be compensated. If it has become known then we don’t take into consideration his expensive tastes and is not entitled to anything more than other paupers.

[3] In our Commentary on the Sayings of the Fathers (chap. v. 7) we have explained the expression ḥesed as denoting an excess [in some moral quality]. It is especially used of extraordinary kindness. Loving-kindness is practised in two ways: first, we show kindness to those who have no claim whatever upon us; secondly, we are kind to those to whom it is due, in a greater measure than is due to them. In the inspired writings the term ḥesed occurs mostly in the sense of showing kindness to those who have no claim to it whatever. For this reason the term ḥesed is employed to express the good bestowed upon us by God: "I will mention the loving-kindness of the Lord" (Isa. lxiii. 7). On this account, the very act of the creation is an act of God's loving-kindness. "I have said, The Universe is built up in loving-kindness" (Ps. lxxxix. 3); i.e., the building up of the Universe is an act of loving-kindness. Also, in the enumeration of God's attributes, Scripture says: "And abundant in loving-kindness" (Exod. xxxiv. 6). The term ẓedakah is derived from ẓedek, "righteousness"; it denotes the act of giving every one his due, and of showing kindness to every being according as it deserves. In Scripture, however, the expression ẓedakah is not used in the first sense, and does not apply to the payment of what we owe to others. When we therefore give the hired labourer his wages, or pay a debt, we do not perform an act of ẓedakah. But we do perform an act of ẓedakah when we fulfil those duties towards our fellow-men which our moral conscience imposes upon us; e.g., when we heal the wound of the sufferer. Thus Scripture says, in reference to the returning of the pledge [to the poor debtor]: "And it shall be ẓedakah (righteousness) unto thee" (Deut. xxiv. 11). When we walk in the way of virtue we act righteously towards our intellectual faculty, and pay what is due unto it; and because every virtue is thus ẓedakah, Scripture applies the term to the virtue of faith in God. Comp. "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. xv. 6); "And it shall be our righteousness" (Deut. vi. 25).

[4] P. 143.

[5] Article ( An Aramaic Ostracon of an Edomite Marriage Contract from Maresha, Dated 176 B.C.E. Author(s): Esther Eshel and Amos Kloner, P. 11. With thanks to Dr. Hallel Baitner for this reference.

[6] Tara”b (19 Kislev, 1915), 2:768.

[7] Melukat 6:48: Sedaqah hu inyan ha’yosher la-ses le’chal e-chad k’fi ha-ra-uy lo a-val ha-che-sed hu haf-la-gas ha-tov le-heitiv yo-ser mi-mah she-hu ra-uy etc. Ve’ha-inyan hu ke-ya-du-a de-be’sedeqah ne-mar diy mach-soro asher yech-sar lo a-val ee a-tah atah me’chu-yav le-ash-ro. etc.

[8] This is not necessarily in contradiction with the Talmud since, firstly, the case of the Talmud regarding the fattened hen and aged wine preference is the final case in the text and suggests that G-d provides and therefore want us to provide for each individual according to their expensive tastes even if they chose such tastes themselves. Secondly, the plain reading of the Talmud, aside from the story of Hillel, does not make any distinction between someone born into a wealthy family and someone who developed their own expensive lifestyle. There is much discussion about the nature of stories in the Talmud in the context of law.

[9] P. 221.


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