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The Jewish Take on Minimalism

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

While this week’s topic may seem out of left field, it is really a continuation of last week’s theme on freedom.

This year I am participating in a year-long online course called “A Simple Year: Twelve Months of Guided Simplicity.” This course is part of the larger minimalism/simplicity movement that is growing in popularity in developed countries, as people seek to free themselves from the cycle of acquiring, maintaining, and getting rid of stuff to free up space to focus on the things that really matter, like our health, relationships, passions, and spirituality.[1]

To be clear, minimalism is not about consuming less, but consuming consciously. There are certain physical things that we need and add quality to our lives and that’s ok. For me, the problem began after I moved to L.A. and the movers followed me with boxes and boxes of stuff that was just taking up space. And so, I ventured down a path of decluttering by getting rid of excess and being conscious about what new things I brought into our home.

There are two types of decluttering: simplifying our space and simplifying our time.[2] Right now, I am more focused on the former, but a big reason to simplify my space is to simplify my time. If I can stop accumulating unused stuff, I won’t have to spend hours and hours shopping in the first place, maintaining, organizing, and inevitably getting rid of it down the line.

Where does our desire for materialism come from? One of the Ten Commandments is “Do Not Covet.” Coveting is linked to jealousy, a feeling one has when he is “upset with a perceived lack.”[3] “Due to our poor sense of what we need, we compare ourselves to others, and even judge our own value by how much we have.”[4] However, what we really need is spiritual satisfaction- expressing our G-d given potential, intimacy with G-d and connection with a higher reality. When our soul does not get that, we begin to desire things from the material world.[5]

One solution to taming or eliminating our desire for materialism is by engaging in more spiritual pursuits.[6] For a Jew, that means doing mitzvot: learning Torah, praying, acts of kindness, lighting Shabbat candles, etc. By working on these more internal goals, rather than pursuing external goals, one will be happier, more satisfied, and have less desire for material things.

The Torah perspective on material consumption- and physical pleasures generally- is that we should engage in the physical world and elevate it, by infusing our material possessions and physical acts with spiritual meaning.[7] For example, Jews say a blessing before and after they eat to elevate the act of eating by reminding them that G-d is the source of their food and they should use the food to fulfill their potential and G-d’s will.

Although we are permitted to engage in physical pleasures, “the Torah instructs us to ‘be holy’ or in other words, to refrain from self-indulgence and luxuries.”[8] There is an amazing story about Jacob, who left his father-in-law’s house after many years and was traveling with his large family, his servants, and all their possessions. They knew it was only a matter of time before they encountered Esau, who had a 400-person army and had threatened to kill Jacob. Later that night, Jacob realized that he had forgotten a few small vessels on the other side of the stream from where they had come, and he traveled all the way back to get them, leaving his family alone in the face of Esau’s impending approach.  Why did Jacob, who was very wealthy, go back for a few small vessels? It is because “the truly righteous recognize the value of their G-d given possessions, and are very careful with them, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they are. While not overly attached to material things, they do not dispose of objects prematurely or use them inappropriately.”[9]

It seems the Jewish perspective on consumption is in line with the New Age minimalism one: we should use and take care of our things. If something is not useful, we should donate it, sell it, recycle it, or throw it away, depending on the item. Yet the Jewish approach takes it one step further by suggesting that when we do consume, we should do it not just consciously, but for a spiritual purpose. For instance, buy a nice dress with the intention to wear it on Shabbat. Or buy food with the intention of feeding your family so they have the energy to do more good deeds.

I am finding some great resources as I embark on my decluttering journey, which I attach below.

Resources:

The Minimalistsbest friends Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus walked away from their six-figure corporate careers and now call themselves The Minimalists. Their podcast, articles, and books may be helpful to you. I recently saw their documentary, Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (free on Netflix). It’s worth a watch.

Be More With LessCourtney Carver is also a big player in the Simplicity/Minimalist movement. She created the Project 333 Challenge, which is a “minimalist fashion challenge that invites you to dress with 33 items or less for 3 months.” (Including shoes!) She also has great articles, books, and courses on simplifying (such as the course I mentioned above that I am taking).

Gretchen Rubin’s Quiz: The Four Tendencies– Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, focuses her work on habits and happiness. To change a habit (such as decluttering or anything else), “one important question is: ‘How do I respond to an expectation?’ When we try to form a new habit, we set an expectation for ourselves. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand how we respond to expectations.” This quiz helps us do just that.

[2] Gretchen Rubin

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] “[Spiritual] satisfaction serves as a check against runaway consumerism.” Id.

[7] Neril, Passing the Test of Wealth: A Challenge for Our Time, Canfei Nesharim. Kabbalistic sources teach us that physical items on Earth contain “sparks of holiness” and by using an item properly, we are elevating these sparks and thus elevating the spiritual (and physical) state of the world.

[8] Rabbi Yehuda Levi, Ecological Problems: Living on Future Generations’ Account, in Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment 22-23, (Canfei Nesharim, New York, 2005).

[9] Id. “[E]ach material item that a righteous person uses is a means toward a spiritual repair in the world.” Id. This shows the powerful potential of using a material item properly. (Primary Sources: Genesis 32, Talmud (Chullin 91a)).

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