Rav Ephraim-Zalman Margolis, who was blessed with both scholarship and wealth, was also a very clever person with a sharp sense of humor. He would combine both with his immense knowledge to find solutions to puzzling problems.
It once happened that a very poor man, who also happened to be a scholar of sorts, stopped by his home to ask for a contribution. Rav Ephraim-Zalman invited the man into this home, spoke with him concerning various Torah problems and issues and then gave him a generous contribution.
The man saw that Rav Ephraim-Zalman had given him great respect and he grew a little arrogant and bold.
“Believe me, sir,” he began, “if I had your wealth and a poor man came to ask for help, I would have given him a much bigger contribution than you gave me.”
Rav Ephraim-Zalman did not grow angry, instead he smiled and replied, “You probably mean what you say, but how can I believe it when the wisest of all men said the opposite?”
The pauper looked at the rabbi in surprise and asked, “What do you mean?”
“It is simple,” answered Rav Ephraim-Zalman. “In Mishlei (19:22) we find that Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, says, ‘The yearning of man is to do kindness and a poor man is better than a liar.’
“This is a puzzling verse. After all, what connection is there between the first and the second half? In reality, the answer is simple. ‘The yearning of man is to do kindness’ refers to the fact that all people, especially the poor, want to do good deeds. When the pauper is poor, he promises: ‘If only the Almighty would grant me wealth as he gave the other man, I would give much more charity than he does.’
“If so, why does HaKadosh Baruch Hu not give such poor people money? To this question, the second half of the verse is the answer: ‘And a poor man is better than a liar.’ The Almighty knows beforehand that the pauper only says this now when he has no money. Should he become wealthy, he might behave quite differently and might forge this promise. Therefore, He says: ‘It is better that he remain a poor man than become a rich liar.’”
Unfortunately, many Jews took advantage of Rav Ephraim-Zalman’s good heart, not realizing that even his wealth had its limits and that he could not accommodate every job seeker.
One day, a man came into Rav Ephraim-Zalman’s office.
“What can I do for you?” asked the rav.
“I am looking for a job in your business,” replied the man.
“Very well, I will see what I can do for you. Are you familiar with accounting procedures?”
“No,” replied the man, “I have no idea how to handle accounting.”
“Well, then, do you know how to handle business correspondence and letters relating to finance?”
“Absolutely not. I have never done that sort of work in my life.”
Rav Ephraim-Zalman looked at the man in surprise.
“If you do not know how to be an accountant,” he asked, “and you cannot handle business correspondence, why are you here? What can you do for me in my business?”
“To be perfectly truthful,” said the job applicant, “I am a very clever person and I know how to give very good advice.”
Rabbi Ephraim-Zalman saw what he was dealing with. A quick smile passed over his face and he said: “Very well, you are hired. Here is 20 gold coins. Give me a good plan as to how I may be rid of you.”
A Heavy Tax
Similarly, because of Rav Ephraim-Zalman’s good heart, people assumed that he was much richer than he really was, and when it came to taxes, they would put an unusually heavy burden on him.
Once, the government ordered a very heavy tax and the community council voted that every person should shoulder his share of the burden. They ordered Rav Ephraim-Zalman to pay several thousand gold pieces, an enormous amount.
He invited the heads of the community to his home and said, “I will, of course, accede to your demands and I wish to thank you, furthermore for having resolved for me a problem that has been bothering me for a very long time.”
The leaders looked at him in surprise and asked: “We have solved a problem for you? How is that, Rav Ephraim-Zalman?”
“I always wondered whether someone’s wealth protects him, despite the fact that he is a scholar, or would the fact that he is a scholar overcome even his wealth, so that he would have to pay a heavy tax anyhow?
“At last I have got the answer to my question. Despite the fact that I have wealth and you could ordinarily not tax me heavily, my scholarship has negated this fact because of your desire to tax the scholar heavily.”