Is being frugal a Jewish trait? After all, being “tight-fisted” is one of the most common slurs against Jews.
One might think there is some truth to this statement when reading in Sotah 12a: “She [Yocheved] took for him [Moses] an ark of bulrushes — why just bulrushes? Rabbi Eleazar said: Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous, their money is dearer than their person…” Instead of assuming that Yocheved chose bulrushes because they were available and would not attract attention, Rabbi Eleazar understands that this was a conscious decision not to spend money on hardwood (which might have made a better boat).
This is only shocking until one reads Rabbi Eleazar’s explanation: “… and why so?–That they should not stretch out their hand to robbery” (Sotah 12a). The inferred meaning is that the righteous do not spend unnecessarily on physical comforts lest they start to excessively desire them and are led to take liberties with other people’s property.
This frugality within the Jewish community stems from a desire that one’s money should always be put to good use. This means that one should spend less on luxuries in order to ensure that there is more to use for mitzvot and tzedaka (charity).
What does it mean to spend money on mitzvot? Jewish law encourages hiddur mitzvah, beautifying a mitzvah–for instance, purchasing beautiful candlesticks for Shabbat.
Yet, even while the sages encouraged hiddur mitzvah, they were concerned that this should not lead to excessive spending. Pointing out that “On fast days they used curved shofars of rams’ horns the mouths of which were overlaid with silver,” the Talmud ponders “Why in the other case [on Rosh Hashana] should gold have been used and here silver?” the response is that “… the Torah wished to spare Israel unnecessary expense” (Rosh Hashana 27a).
Perhaps it is true that Jews are frugal…but not when it counts.