Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Re'eh 5761/2001

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parshat Re'eh 5761/ August 18, 2001

On the Commandment of Tzedakah

Michael Hellinger

"If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of our settlements in the land that the Lord our G-d is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your need kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs” (Deut. 15:7-8)

The expression "needy person" (evyon), or synonyms such as poor, destitute, and impoverished, recur in these and other verses in the Bible to describe the situation of people in weak economic and social circumstances. The term "needy person" does not define the precise level of economic hardship that entitles such a person to charity; rather, it is a very general and perhaps even subjective description directed at the perception of the giver. The Torah here commands the person of means to open his hand and give the needy person sufficient for what he lacks, even adding a warning against being stingy. What this would seem to mean is that if the "needy person" has a house, food and clothing, and lacks whatever luxuries or pleasures, such as "a horse on which to ride, or a servant to go running before him", his well-to-do brother has to supply him these needs. Indeed, the Tannaitic Midrash on these verses says just that: "'Whatever he needs' - even a horse, or a servant. It is told of Hillel the Elder that he gave a poor person from a well-to-do family a horse on which to exercise and a servant to wait on him."[1]

The needy person in this midrash, who lacked nothing but luxury items, received these things as charity from Hillel the Elder, who understood the Torah as commanding us to give the destitute enough so as to restore him to his previous socio-economic position. Therefore one was commanded to give a poor aristocrat who had been accustomed to having a horse and a servant, "whatever he lacks", e.g., a horse to ride and a servant to wait on him.

The Sages of the Mishnah laid down clear economic and financial definitions of the group eligible for charity, apparently out of their desire to provide for the minimal needs of the poor, whose numbers had grown after the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kokhba rebellion. The Mishnah says: "One who has two hundred zuz[2] must not take gleanings, forgotten produce, field-corner produce, or poor-man's tithe. If he has two hundred zuz minus one denar, " he may take" One who possesses fifty zuz[3] and trades with these must not take" (Pe'ah 8.8-9).[4]

The Sages of the Mishnah drew a "poverty line" and all who fell beneath were eligible for charity: not being able to afford food and clothing for the year. A person with 200 zuz in hand, or someone who in the course of the year "produced" at least 200 zuz free income, was not eligible for charity. According to this definition, there could no longer be "poor" who have everything save for a horse and servant; a "poor" person was someone who did not have enough money for the basic needs of feeding and clothing himself and his family.

Early posekim felt that the definition of poverty given in the Mishnah could no longer apply, because the sum of 200 hundred zuz, which had sufficed for a year's basic needs in the time of the Mishnah, no longer sufficed in their day. Further, then a poor person had alternative sources of income such as the poor-man's tithe and other gifts to the needy, whereas in their day there were no alternative sources other than outright charity. In the opinion of several rishonim (early posekim),[5] the absence of all these extra sources of income required a more sophisticated definition of the poverty line-- only those who lacked the economic foundation to support themselves over time were considered poor and eligible for charity, for even the Sages of the Mishnah had ruled that a person who can provide himself with a minimal livelihood over time is not considered needy. Therefore, rishonim such as Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil (SemakSefer Mitzvot Qatan) ruled that anyone who could not support himself on the earnings of his capital was eligible for charity. This was a flexible definition that took into consideration the circumstances of the time and place, and could be adapted to any place according to the standard of living there.

Obviously, not every person who requests charity is eligible according to the definition of the poverty line. May we investigate the condition of those who request, so that only those truly eligible will receive? The rabbis of the Talmud discussed this issue and came up with opposing views (Bava Batra 9a). Rabbi Huna maintained that one should check the condition of a poor person who requests food, but Rabbi Judah said one should only check up on the poor person who requests clothing. The halakhah was determined to follow Rabbi Judah. Maimonides ruled likewise: "If a poor person whom one does not know says, 'I am hungry, feed me,' one must not investigate whether or not he is being honest but must provide for him immediately. If he has no clothes and says, 'provide me clothing,' then one investigates whether or not he is being honest" (Hilkhot Matnot Aniyim 7.6).

This ruling of Maimonides seems far from easy to implement. Anyone who examines the Talmudic argument can see that the amoraim did not perform such checks in actual practice. Quite the contrary, they generally said, "Let us give the cheaters the benefit of the doubt, for were it not for them we might be sinning every day (Ketubbot 67b, 68a). The attitude of the Sages was that it is a mitzvah to give charity and help one's fellow whenever requested, and that whoever does not give to a poor person is consider a sinner. Hence, if some people who ask for charity are charlatans, they "save" from sin those who are able to give and do not give, or those who give belatedly. The potential giver is saved from sinning by virtue of those who pose as poor.

It appears that the tannaim as well considered that a person who gives charity ought not to check out the poor person who asks. Therefore the Mishnah inserted a warning to deter charlatans from asking for charity: "And anyone who is not in need of taking and does take will not die before he will be dependent on others; ... and he who is not lame or blind or limping and pretends to be as one of these will not die of old age before he becomes like one of them, as it is said, 'Justice, justice shall you pursue' (Deut. 16:20)" (Pe'ah 8.9).

While the rabbis warned the charlatan not to take charity in violation of the law, they also promised wealth and blessing to those who refrained from taking charity even though they were in hard times and entitled by the laws of Torah to take, as is written further on in the same mishnah: "and anyone who is in need of taking and does not take will not die of old age before he will support others from his own, and of him the verse says, 'Blesses is he who trusts in the Lord, and the Lord shall be his trust (Jer. 17:7)."

A person who puts his trust in the Lord, believing that his sustenance is determined in Heaven from one New Year to the next, and who tightens his belt and does not take charity - such a person is promised to see the day when he can help support other needy people. The idea that it is preferable to avoid receiving charity, even if one were legally entitled to, was expressed by Rabbi Akiva in his command to his son Rabbi Joshua: "Seven things Rabbi Akiva commanded his son Rabbi Joshua: 'Make your Sabbath plain and do not rely on others..."[6] If your financial situation does not enable you to celebrate the Sabbath properly with food and drink and clean clothes, do not take charity although you are eligible, even if your Sabbath might consequently look like a plain weekday.

The following words by Maimonides in Mishne Torah, phrased so as to leave no doubts as to his position, speak for themselves:

A person should always tighten the belt and suffer, rather than rely on others and be a burden on the community. Thus the Sages commanded, "Make your Sabbath plain and do not rely on others." Even if a person were wise respectable and became poor, he should pursue a craft, even the lowliest, and not rely on others. Better to skin dead animals than to say to the people, "I am a great man, a wise man, I am a priest; support me." Thus the Sages were commanded. The greatest of the Sages were hewers of wood, bearers of beams and drawers of water to gardens, or iron and coal workers, and they did not ask of the community nor did they receive from them when offered (Hilkhot Matnot Aniyim, 10.18).






[1] Sifre Deuteronomy 116, Finkelstein ed., p. 175, s.v. "dei mahsoro". Several variants of this midrash appear in different sources. In the Babylonian Talmud (Ketubbot 67b) the above passage continues: "Once he could not find a servant to run before him, so he ran before him for three miles." According to this version, Hillel's act of charity reached such a high level that it can hardly be taken literally, since it is inconceivable that Hillel, a Nasi in Israel, would actually have run in front of the horse of that poor person.

[2] In those days, enough to support a married couple for a whole year.

[3] Fifty zuz as working capital is equal to 200 zuz not so used.

[4] For a computation of an individual's annual expenses, see the commentary by R. Samson of Sens on this mishnah.

[5] Tur, Yoreh De'ah 253, s.v. ve-yesh omerim and Bet Yosef s.v. ve-yesh omerim, "ve-khen katab ha-Semak"

[6] Otzar ha-Midrashim (Eisenstein), p. 162, s.v. sheva hupot.