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As this column is dedicated to money matters, one question we should probably consider is a very basic one: what is wealth?
The Oxford Dictionary says it’s ‘an abundance of valuable possessions or money.’ According to Coutts, the Queen’s private bank, anyone who can deposit £1 million is eligible to join the club. At HSBC, it takes £50,000 in savings or an annual income of £100,000 to qualify for a ‘premium’ account.
These figures show that even banks have different views on who counts as wealthy. So I turned to sage sources to find out more. I recently studied a text in the Jewish Talmud, which has discussions on all areas of human life, from agricultural laws to relationships. On the topic of wealth there is a short passage relating a conversation between four first- and second century rabbis on the question: who is wealthy? A wealthy person is ‘anyone who has one hundred vineyards,’ says Rabbi Tarfon, taking a no-nonsense approach similar to that of the banks.
Rabbi Jose argues that anyone who ‘has a bathroom close to his table’ is wealthy, reminding us of times when outdoor toilets were more common. Rabbi Meir says it’s anyone who ‘gets pleasure from their wealth,’ suggesting that wealth is a state of mind; thus, wealthy individuals are those who are enjoying their assets, whatever their value.
The fourth sage, Rabbi Akiva, takes a more romantic stance. He says anyone who is happy in their marriage is wealthy. Interestingly, he started out as a poor shepherd and his wife Rachel financially supported his rabbinical studies, paving the way for his success. And finally, turning to a contemporary voice, the former UK chief Rabbi Sacks maintains that societies are rich when they care for the poor.
This column was originally published in Money Observer, January 2018