Jewish Wisdom for Business Success
Lessons from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts
By Levi Brackman, Sam Jaffe
Pub Date: 2008
List Price: $24.00
Why have Jews been so successful at making money?
There are plenty of theories: genetics, cultural sensibilities, the herring. We don’t agree with any of them. But before we present our answer to the question, here’s the story on which the herring theory is based:
A Jewish peddler was taking a train from Minsk to Pinsk. Stuffed with his wares into a tiny cabin with several other people, goats, and chickens, he was surprised to see an officer of the Czar’s army enter through the door. “The first class cabins are full,” said the officer, a look of disgust spreading across his face as he realized who his traveling companions would be for the long ride.
The Jewish fellow, paying respect to one of his country’s warriors, stood up from his seat and motioned for the officer to sit down in his place. The officer, pleased, took the seat and eyed his benefactor curiously. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.
“Last time I checked I was,” the peddler said, nervously fingering the knots of his prayer garment.
“Tell me,” said the officer, a light growing in his eyes, “why are you Jews so good at business? You seem like a nice chap. Tell me what your people’s secret is.”
The peddler narrowed his eyes, as if thinking hard. “I’m sorry, but I can’t,” he said. “I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”
“I’ll give you ten rubles,” the officer said excitedly. “I’ve got to know.”
“Ten rubles? What secret is worth 10 rubles? I’ve sold shmattes for more than ten rubles, but I’ve given an oath! Ten rubles is not worth my sworn oath.”
“Okay. I’ll give you 100 rubles.” The officer pulled out a crisp 100 ruble note and held it in front of the peddler. The man leaned over the seated officer and whispered something into his ear while deftly relieving his hand of the 100 ruble note at the same time. He stood straight up and looked out the window, ignoring the officer’s puzzled expression.
“Schmaltz herring?” The officer asked.
“That’s what we eat. We love the stuff. Start eating a lot of it, all the time. Pretty soon, you’ll notice that your business acumen is improving. Over time, you’ll find yourself raking in the rubles.” The train pulled into the station and the peddler tipped his hat and made his way out of the cabin. “Ah, here’s Pinsk. Good luck with the schmaltz herring, sir, and please don’t tell anyone that it was me that let out the secret.”
A few months later, the peddler was manning his clothing stand near the Pinsk railway station when he heard the din of galloping hoofbeats behind him. He turned around to see the officer, fury in his eyes, reining in his horse. “I finally found you, you scoundrel,” bellowed the officer. “I want my money back!” He dismounted. In his hand was a glass jar of schmaltz herring.
“I’ve been eating this stuff for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s awful! It tastes like grease mixed with dirt. You fooled me once, but you won’t again fool me again…”
“I don’t understand, sir,” the peddler said. “What is wrong?”
“What’s wrong? I gave you a hundred rubles and you told me to eat schmaltz herring and it would make me a smart businessman. Now I realize that you’ve tricked me…” The officer stopped in mid-breath, amazed that instead of cowering in fear, the peddler was smiling and nodding his head knowingly.
“Good,” said the peddler, smiling. “I see the schmaltz herring is working.”
But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a legitimate question. After all, Jews make up less than two-tenths of a percentage point of the world’s population, yet they represent more than ten percent of the Forbes 400 list of the world’s wealthiest people, more than ten percent of the Fortune list of the Chief Executive Officers of the 500 largest corporations in the world, and almost thirty percent of all the Nobel Prize winners. Jews are disproportionately represented in many high-income fields, such as medicine, law, finance, and science. Jews do seem to have some sort of advantage when it comes to financial success.
In the early part of the last century—the first extended period of time when Jews were allowed to participate in the social, financial, and cultural realms of the larger society in Europe and America—many people struggled with trying to answer this question. Unfortunately, they too often made the error of assuming that Jews were so successful because they cheated. In the United States, Henry Ford self-published a book about “the Jewish problem,” entitled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem which urged his fellow citizens to stand in the way of this foreign race that was becoming too successful too quickly. Ford’s writings turned out to be the rants of a doddering old fool. But in Germany, Adolf Hitler published a similar book, Mein Kampf, and the world burned for more than a decade as a result.
So the puzzle over the question of Jewish success in business has stayed in a box in the corner of intellectual discussion, unopened out of fear of repeating historical mistakes.
As the authors of this book, we strongly disagree with the argument that the box should remain closed. We feel that we know the answer to the original question. And our hypothesis might be even more controversial than the act of raising the topic. It’s not the schmaltz herring, an international cabal, or genetics. We believe that the root cause of Jewish success in business lays in the book Jews hold most dear and sacred—the Torah.
“Being Jewish” can mean a lot of things to different people. To some, it’s about a political movement—Zionism. To others, it’s about a specific culture, complete with its own accent, ethics, and even sense of humor. To yet others, it simply means a type of cuisine. But the one thing that everyone agrees about “being Jewish” is that it’s a religion. And the religion of Judaism is guided by a book called the Torah, also known as the Hebrew Bible (and to Christians as the Old Testament).
The last two centuries have seen a tremendous decrease in the religiosity of most Jews for a variety of reasons. But what is difficult for outsiders to comprehend is the fact that even non-religious Jews still carry a four-thousand year-old religious tradition within their souls. Some claim it’s a genetic inheritance. Others might call it a form of a Jungian collective Id. We call it osmosis. For millennia, the Torah, its stories and its values were taught intensively to every Jew from childhood to old age. As Jews abandoned the active study of Judaism in the last two centuries, they still grew up in a society permeated with a knowledge of Torah and its unique view of the world. Even a Jew born in the baby boom after World War II, who can’t remember any relatives who studied Torah every day and lived by its commandments, still has something very real in common with all other Jews. It’s a particular sense of right and wrong, a unique ordering of priorities, and a way of doing things that hearkens back to founding fathers like Moses and Abraham and founding mothers like Leah and Rachel.
At this point, we’ve probably left some of our non-Jewish readers mystified. Religion, they stammer, is about divinity and heaven and hell. How can you propose a theory which says that sacred religious writings are the source of business success?
People who are familiar with the Jewish religion and its impact on a person’s daily life will be much more understanding of our suggestion. Judaism, after all, is a religion of the here and now, not the hereafter. The observant Jew follows rules that originated from the Torah which govern, among other things, how to get out of bed, how to dress, how to wash your hands, how to eat, how to pray, how to parent your children, how to respect your elders, how to observe a lightning storm…The list could go on for pages. And we’re not talking about customs. All these activities have rules. Rules that were formulated over three and a half thousand years ago. Rules that are still being fastidiously observed by adherents of the religion.
For such an all-encompassing religion, we consider it preposterous to claim that Judaism and the Torah says nothing about how to make money. That is, after all, what human beings have spent the majority of their waking hours doing for at least the last five thousand years. To somehow say that the Torah just ignores that facet of our lives would be a hard bone to swallow.
But our hypothesis is even bolder than some might expect. We aren’t just saying that the Torah speaks about business ethics (it does that also). But it goes much deeper. The Torah offers a blueprint for the businessperson to create, maintain, and grow a profitable and successful enterprise. That blueprint isn’t in PowerPoint format or sketched on a whiteboard in some synagogue office. It’s hidden deep within the Hebrew Bible and its auxiliary texts known together as the Torah. The etymology of word Torah is hora-ah, which means “to teach” thus this book takes the teachings and lessons of the Torah and shows how they relate to business success.
A word about how we define the texts of the Torah. Jews have always seen the Torah as having two texts that depend on each other and are thus inseparable. The two components of the Torah are the written law and the oral law. The written law, which the rest of the world refers to as the Old Testament, comprises the five books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Scriptures. The oral law is comprised of the Talmud, the Midrash, and the Kabbalah. The “oral law” is termed as such because, like many other bodies of work in the ancient world before the invention of the printing press, it was originally transmitted orally. It was eventually written down by the rabbis who worried that it would be lost and the or