In addressing the complaint of the thirsty Israelites, God commands Moses to use his staff and cause water to flow from a rock to satisfy the people and their cattle (Numbers 20:8). That God would be concerned with the needs of His people is understandable. But that God would be equally concerned with satisfying their cattle is odd. Surely God is merciful to every living creature (Psalm 145:9), but the special mention of cattle in this verse seems unnecessary. After all, if God satisfies the needs of His people, it would include the needs of his people’s cattle. So to the Midrash Tanhuma (Hukkat 9) there is a special reason for including mention of the cattle in this Scriptural verse. It serves as the source for the principle that God spares the money of Jews. Cattle were costly property. If they died of thirst, their owners would have been ruined. So God provides for them so that every Israelite cattle owner will not suffer financial loss.
This same principle is articulated slightly differently in the Talmud. The fourth century Babylonian scholar Rava twice ruled in favor of eating things whose kashrut was in doubt because of the application of the principle that “the Torah spares the money of Jews.” If a pot of honey left uncovered overnight was prohibited, the owner stood to lose a considerable sum (Hulin 49b). And if the meat around a fractured bone was prohibited, the consumer would lose a goodly part of his purchase (Hulin 77a). Therefore Rava permits both citing this principle as one of his justifications.
While Rava’s rulings did not enjoy universal support, other statements in the Talmud demonstrate that the principle was never in doubt. For example, silver Temple implements were used instead of gold (Yoma 44b) and wooden ones instead of silver (Yoma 39a) to reduce the cost that the people had to expend for maintaining the Temple. Similarly, the oil accompanying meal offerings need not be pure because it would make the ritual too costly. And the oil that fueled the Menorah during the night was added only as needed to avoid leftover oil that had to be discarded in the morning (Menahot 89a). To do otherwise would be a waste of money. In each case the Talmud cites the principle that the Torah spares Jews additional expense. In fact, the Scriptural verse the Talmud itself adduces to prove the principle (Menahot 76b), is none other than the verse cited by the Midrash Tanhuma.
Our ancestors knew as well as we do that it is indeed quite costly to practice Judaism. Whether it is Jewish education or summer camping for our children, synagogue memberships, tzedakah, ritual items, or kosher food – the total costs are escalating. Sensitive to this concern, our tradition has maintained that while some expenditures are necessary, others are not. And even the ones that are necessary need not be made fancier than they should be.