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Q Our veteran rabbi wants to be more commensurately paid with other well-trained professionals. While not necessarily greedy, this doesn't seem too pious!
- Michael M., Illinois
A Are you sure that you want to ask a rabbi this question?
In seriousness, I naturally side with my colleagues, who make significant (and underappreciated) sacrifices in service of the community. Nonetheless, the historic issue of rabbinic compensation entails a complex web of moral and legal values that deserves continued reflection.
In a famous talmudic maxim, Rabbi Tzadok exclaimed, "Do not use the Torah as a crown for self-glorification or a spade for digging." One may not use his knowledge to seek acclaim or as a tool to amass wealth. Hillel further warned that such a person will perish (Avot 4:5). Moses himself, the Talmud claimed, exhorted future scholars to teach Scripture without charge (Nedarim 37a).
In this spirit, many talmudic sages earned their livelihood through various (and sometimes laborious) trades, such as farming, tanning and wood chopping. Naturally, these limitations led to socioeconomic hardships and, occasionally, divisions between poorer scholars and those who were independently wealthy. Exemptions from communal taxation and preferences in certain trades helped alleviate these pressures. Most importantly, scholars were permitted to receive sechar tirha and sechar batala, compensation for preparatory efforts and income lost while performing religious services. Thus Karna, a distinguished wine connoisseur and judge, could receive a standard and equal payment from each litigant before issuing his verdicts (Ketubot 105a), while elementary-school teachers could receive compensation for the "day care" aspects of their jobs (Nedarim 37a).
In early medieval times, two major Babylonian yeshivot, Sura and Pumbedita, raised significant funds from local communities and foreign supporters, who enjoyed legal guidance from the yeshiva heads (gaonim). When Spanish Jewry emerged as an independent community in the 10th century, it lured great scholars with large stipends and other benefits (Sefer Hakabbala). This extensive support of scholars through public funds, and the "relentless importuning for contributions," as Prof. Isadore Twersky called it, drew the ire of Maimonides, who lambasted the use of scholarship for financial gain as a violation of the talmudic work ethic. The sages, like Maimonides himself, worked to avoid relying on communal charity.
Nonetheless, in Sephardic lands, rabbis continued to receive stipends from their communities, with Rabbi Simon Duran of Algiers (Tashbetz, 1361-1444) even writing a treatise against Maimonides's position. Noting that the Talmud itself allowed for certain financial remunerations, he compared contemporary rabbis to ancient priests, who received tithes and other assistance. He also noted that the contemporary responsibilities extended well beyond scholarship to include administrative and diplomatic functions, thereby necessitating basic wealth to increase one's stature and facilitate the job's intense time dedication.
In Ashkenazic lands, matters developed more slowly. R. Yehuda Hahassid (1150-1217), leader of the German Pietists, opposed communal salaries as a violation of talmudic strictures and an imposition on poor families. His colleague, R. Eliezer of Bohemia, however, countered that without support - raised during Purim and Simhat Torah appeals - the religious leaders would be forced to abandon their work, leaving the communities without spiritual guidance (Or Zarua 113).
By the 15th century, communal salaries for rabbis (and in many cases cantors) had become the norm in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic lands. Nonetheless, as Prof. Jeffrey I. Roth has shown, rabbinic emoluments varied greatly. While some communities supported their rabbis with a living wage, others offered minimal stipends, forcing the rabbi to procure other resources. Some rabbinic contracts included minimal salaries that were supplemented by service fees for various rabbinic functions, such as divorces, sermons and adjudication. While this system was criticized by R. Ovadia of Bertinuro as unfair since people had no recourse other than these officials (Bechorot 4:6), it remained the dominant practice for many years.
A new problem now emerged as rabbis competed to perform these services. Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein (d. 1460), embarrassed by the potential impropriety of these fees, ruled that a newly arrived scholar could perform religious services in his city, even if it might take away from the established rabbi's business (Trumat Hadeshen 128). Yet 100 years later, Rabbi Moshe Isserles limited the fees a newcomer could accrue (YD 245:22), with Rabbi Moshe Sofer (d. 1839) later ruling that in an era of formal communal appointments, no outsiders could impinge on the official rabbi's salary. Other disputes emerged over tenure and inheritance rights to the position.
These debates highlight the conflicting values that continue to cause controversy over rabbinic salaries. Rabbis are hard workers who must balance their self-sacrificing idealism with supporting their families in a manner that preserves the dignity of their calling and position. While compensation must vary based on many factors, including the community's financial health, my guess is that your particular case represents an act of prudence, not a lack of piety.
The writer, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.