Kli Yakar: Torah’s defender of the poor

The author of the Kli Yakar commentary – “kli yakar” is the “precious object” of wise speech in Proverbs 20:15 – exposed the hypocrisy of the wealthy.

A STONE offering box for the poor at a synagogue. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters) (photo credit: REUTERS/ALESSANDRO BIANCHI)
A STONE offering box for the poor at a synagogue. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
Is a life of poverty a blessing bestowed on the poor individual by God? It would seem so, if one followed the opinion of Rabbi Moses Isserles of Krakow, the scholar and halachist who epitomized the success and creativity of the Jewish golden age in 16th century Poland.
Rabbi Isserles reasoned that poverty deprived the Jew of the temptations caused by wealth. Therefore, a good man lives a life of poverty that prevents sin. Yet, not all religious authorities in the world of the golden age in Poland agreed with the great rabbi of Krakow. Rabbi Ephraim Solomon of Luntshitz built a Torah commentary that offered a cogent critique of the reasoning behind poverty of Rabbi Isserles. In fact, Rabbi Ephraim despised the wealthy and made no secret of it in his sermons and in his Torah commentary Kli Yakar.
Rabbi  Ephraim Solomon of Luntshitz (the Yiddish for the city of Leczyca in central Poland) is often ignored in general Jewish history and histories of the Jews of Poland. I am fortunate to have a secondary source, though brief, on his activities and thought in A History of the Jewish People (edited by prominent historian H.H. Ben-Sasson and published in English in 1976).  Ben-Sasson, in his section on the history of Jews of the Middle Ages, offers some important information and context for Rabbi Ephraim. The dearth of information regarding this master preacher and commentator – he won great praise in both Lvov and Prague for these achievements – is disappointing, considering that he was one of the great and piercing social critics of his time. Ben-Sasson states that in Poland, Rabbi Ephraim “hated the wealthy in that country and strongly condemned their way of life.”
Wealth, according to Rabbi Ephraim, was not Isserles’ positive gift of God. He preached, “The wealthy… are generally the powerful. They use brute force to establish their dominion over the scattered sheep of Israel, the oppressed people among them.”
Ephraim was daring enough to challenge the wealthy in his sermons to the Council of the Four Lands, the ruling self-governing body of the Jews of Poland whose members were the elite of wealth and scholarship. Men strive for wealth because they desire to accrue honors and display the splendor of their august position. They care little for the poor. Ephraim – who later added Solomon to his name after surviving a life-threatening illness – argued, “In any case the poor man… has reason to complain of the nature of judgment: why should such a sentence be given by the Holy and Blest One that his fellow-man be given a double share of wealth in this world, and then, because he supports me, he will be delivered from the punishments of gehinom (hell) as well, while I have nothing. Let me have the wealth and I shall be delivered from hell by giving him.”
The reasoning of Isserles and other rabbis was self-serving and selfish. Poverty was – and is – no gift. The suffering of the poor was true suffering. Back to Ben-Sasson’s history summing up Rabbi Ephraim’s criticism: “Riches are evil by definition and are generally given to those who are evil.”
The author of the Kli Yakar commentary – “kli yakar” is the “precious object” of wise speech in Proverbs 20:15 – exposed the hypocrisy of the wealthy. He concludes that in his generation “all commandments begin and end in counterfeit.” The claim of the wealthy that they were immersed in good deeds by supporting the poor was solely to gain material and social reward. Ben-Sasson quotes a sermon in which Rabbi Ephraim reprimands the wealthy by stating that “in this topsy-turvy generation all deeds have been spoiled… since the hypocrites… have become numerous and show so many qualities of piety openly, when all their purpose is to achieve respect and honor… or sometimes their desire is money and they hope to achieve it by asceticism.” Again, I quote Ben-Sasson on the preacher for the poor: “There is a fear that the so-called piety of a materialist community distorts the true piety of the soul by reimbursing it with worldly rewards.”
With the help of Rabbi Avraham Chill’s The Mitzvot (1974), I would like to provide an example of how the Kli Yakar commentary reflects Rabbi Ephraim’s social criticism. In a number of places in the Torah, fair treatment of the poor is required. In Exodus 22:24, the lender of money to the poor “shall not be to him as a demanding creditor.” Chill, citing Kli Yakar, writes, “The lender actually derives a greater benefit from his generosity than the borrower does from the loan. The borrower is helped only in this world, but the lender receives a reward in the world to come for having helped the poor on earth.”
This truly reflects Rabbi Ephraim’s worldview. The support of the poor by the wealthy should have little to do with the impressive position of the lender in contrast to the borrower. The reward for the loan is given to the lender after death. The intention of the wealthy should not be based in haughtiness and pride. The reward of the mitzvah is not that of the power one wields in this world but the spiritual reward in the world to come. Kli Yakar and hundreds of Rabbi Ephraim’s sermons address the gap between rich and poor and do not allow the rich to legitimize their wealth as solely a gift of God. These leaders must have the whole community’s well-being in mind.
Lest any reader believe that Rabbi Ephraim is engaging in class warfare, that would simply be an anachronism for early modern Jewish life in Poland. The Torah’s ideals of remission of debt in the shmitah year and return of ancestral land in the Jubilee are exactly that: ideals that involved a tribal structure of land ownership and an agrarian economy. In fact, Hillel the Elder, 2,000 years ago, had to circumvent the remission of debt in the seventh year and introduce the pruzbol to ensure that lenders would continue to lend to the poor. The Torah does not promote redistribution of wealth and recognized that there would always be a poor element of society, as well as powerful elites. The safety net for the poor was not state-sponsored but was the obligation of the community.
The prophetic worldview did not call for revolution and class warfare. Rather, it censured elites that had little to do with those stuck in poverty and simply exploited them. Yet, Rabbi Ephraim Solomon of Luntshitz remains an important voice in a Jewish world where gaps between rich and poor are still a reality. The elite of a society must unify that society and not exploit it. With the coming of Hassidism in the century following the Kli Yakar author’s death in 1619, a new chapter in Jewish life began to open with the poor masses discovering that they could bypass the elites and cleave to God in their own way.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.