By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

Rabbi Julian Sinclairs dip into the dictionary

Mammon has entered the English language as a synonym for filthy, corrupting riches, spawning such fearful conditions as mammonism (devotion to the pursuit of riches).

This is mainly through the agency of the Christian Bible, where mammon gets a bad press (eg You cannot serve both God and mammon, Matthew 6:24). Mammon simply means money or wealth in the Hebrew of the time but most English versions of the Gospels leave the Hebrew word untranslated, which lends to the love of money a Jewish sound.

In Mishnaic Hebrew, mammon doesnt have this negative sense. In origin it is a contraction of mihamon, where mi means from and hamon is mass or accumulation. Dinei mammonot are cases in monetary law, as opposed to dinei nefashot, capital cases. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 83b) wants us to know that the biblical phrase an eye for an eye (Exodus 21:24) refers to mammon, monetary compensation rather than the actual putting out of an eye.

This neutral sense of mammon in the Jewish sources reflects a theological difference from Christianity. Mammon is not intrinsically good or bad, its a matter of how you use it.

In Jewish law, holiness is achieved not by shunning the world of money but by sanctifying it through honest business dealings and generosity with what one has. If one wants to attain saintliness, the Talmud surprisingly tells us, study the laws of financialdamages.

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Last updated: 12:31pm, March 6 2009