Is There A Tuition Crisis?

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by R. Gil Student

I think it was 1995 when Rav Feivel Cohen returned from an Agudah convention upset. He explained to his congregation, of which I was a member, that there was great debate about a so-called tuition crisis. Yes, it was already called a crisis 22 years ago. Communal leaders were struggling over how to reduce the financial burden of Jewish education that rests on parents. However, Rav Cohen said, the Talmud is clear.

‎A person’s entire livelihood is allocated to him [during the period] from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur. [During that time, as each individual is judged, it is decreed exactly how much money he will earn for all his expenditures of the coming year,] except for expenditures for Shabbatot, and expenditures for Festivals, and expenditures for [the school fees of] his sons’ Torah study. [In these areas, no exact amount is determined at the beginning of the year; rather,] if he reduced [the amount he spends for these purposes,] his [income] is reduced [and he earns that much less money in that year,] and if he increased [his expenditures] in these areas, his [income] is increased [to ensure that he can cover the expense. Therefore, one may borrow for these purposes, since he is guaranteed to have enough income to cover whatever he spends for them.] (Beitzah 16a, Koren translation)

The Talmud explicitly says that whatever we pay for tuition does not detract from our income. Privately, I asked Rav Cohen about the costs of transportation and secular studies, expenses which the Talmud does not say have no impact on a person’s income. He replied that they are necessary for Torah studies and therefore part of their expense.

For years, I’ve wondered whether that passage has to be taken as literally as Rav Cohen did. Does it mean that we can spend unlimited funds in tuition and fancy meals for Shabbos and Yom Tov? I recently came across a 2014 book on the laws of Shabbos based on the rulings on Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. Rav Daniel Kleinman wrote Kovetz Halakhos, which was reviewed by Rav Kamenetsky and two of his students who serve as halakhic authorities in Lakewood.

In the first chapter (pars. 9-10), Rav Kleinman addresses this Talmudic passage in the context of Shabbos preparations. Rav Kamenetsky offers three general rules about this divine promise:

  1. The purchases have to be for the right intent. You must buy the food or other items for the sake of honoring Shabbos and not just for your own pleasure. If you don’t buy it for honoring Shabbos then the expense does not qualify as a Shabbos expense. Rav Kleinman (n. 11) points out that the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 250:4) seems to say the same thing.
  2. Any expense that is necessary, including clothing, electricity and air conditioning, qualify as Shabbos expenses for these purposes. Even if you buy things just in case you need them on Shabbos or for guests with whom you want to honor Shabbos, these expenses also qualify. This would seem to be in agreement with Rav Feivel Cohen’s response to my question. Even indirect expenses are included.

  3. This promise does not permit extravagant spending beyond your means. The point is to spend normally within your current means and not to worry about future expenses. Even if you (wisely) normally spend less so you can save for the future, do not apply that standard to Shabbos, Yom Tov, etc.

Rav Kleinman (n. 13) quotes the Magen Avraham (242:2) says that if gentiles raise the price of fish dramatically, a community should enact that that people not buy fish for Shabbos. Why is there a need for an enactment? Based on a straightforward reading of the Talmud, people should buy the fish regardless of the price. Rather, this supports Rav Kamenetsky’s approach that we should spend within our means and not in a stingy way.

Returning to the so-called tuition crisis, we can apply Rav Kamenetsky’s approach. Yes, secular studies, transportation and all the other necessities of Torah education are part of the divine promise. However, parents have to choose a school whose tuition is within their means. Additionally, they have to have the proper intent — that their goal is to provide their sons with a Torah education.

Perhaps the tuition crisis is partly a means crisis for people with middle class incomes who lack the funds to pay upper-middle class tuitions. Or in some communities, people with upper middle class incomes who have to pay for upper class tuitions. This expense is not in their means nor something they can expect to be excluded from their incomes. Some communities have built schools that are priced for only the higher tier of their community.

Additionally, perhaps this partly an intention crisis for people of upper middle class incomes who do not necessarily think in terms of Torah intentions. Some people send their children to yeshiva in order to socialize their children in an observant Jewish environment. While this is an excellent reason to choose a Jewish school, it is not the intention discussed by the Talmud, which is to teach your children Torah. This variation of intent has relevance regarding the divine promise.

To some degree, this is also a faith crisis — people who can afford the tuitions but are worried that it will drain money that they would like to use for other activities. Their colleagues enjoy many luxuries that tuition-paying families cannot afford. However, they assume that absent tuition, they would have enough money to pay for those luxuries. Who says that they would? Maybe the raise they received was in order to pay tuition. Maybe other forms of income would decrease. Maybe other expenses would arise. The divine promise applies to these people. To them, the tuition crisis is really a crisis of faith.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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