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Table of contents Ethic and Judaism Fall 2003 - Tishri 5764

    • Editorial

    • Diabetes - prevention?

    • The massacre

Ethic and Judaism
    • Considering the poor

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Considering the poor

By Rabbi Shabtai A. Rappoport
The decline of world economy did not pass over B. Jewish community. Quite a few of its hitherto successful members lost their jobs, and could not find an alternative employment, their savings dwindled fast, and they started accumulating debt at an alarming rate. Consequently, before these people were desperate enough to consult the social services of the community, the more affluent members of community B. met, and discussed the appropriate way to help. The responsibility one has to support and aid a community member in need was pointed out, as well as the obligation that the impoverished has to help himself. Also, it was shown, the funds that could be made available to help these members were, of course, limited. Accordingly, it was suggested, the families who found themselves in dire circumstances should move to smaller and cheaper housing, and sell their cars and more expensive furniture and electronic systems, thus they will raise some money and reduce their expenditure. Once these steps will be taken, these families' debts will be paid, and they will be guaranteed a financial support to take them over these bad days. Even though this suggestion seemed logical and helpful, some of the participants felt squeamish about approaching people in need, telling them to dramatically change their life style. They suggested that the people who feel themselves in need should first approach the community. Another problem that was raised was the priority of spending of funds available to charity. Perhaps, some said, instead of initiating aid to community members who did not ask for it, the available funds should be used to address immediate acute problem, as helping people that need emergency medical treatment. At the time when the Mishnah was authored, the sum of two hundred dinars was sufficient for food and clothing for one year, and the poor man's gifts were taken off the annual harvest – so a person who possessed enough cash to subsist himself for one year should not take part in these gifts until next year's harvest. One who owns less than two hundred dinars in cash, and is entitled to poor man's gifts "may not be compelled to sell his house or his articles of service" (Mishnah Pe'ah VIII, 8). However, the Gemarah (Kethuboth 65, a) asks: "Was it not taught: If he was in the habit of using gold articles he shall now use copper ones (Which proves that a poor man is expected to sell his costlier goods before he is allowed to take alms? Why then was it stated here that he is not compelled to sell his articles of service?) R. Zebid replied: The one (the last mentioned ruling which orders the sale of articles of service) refers to the bed and table: the other to cups and dishes. What difference is there in the case of the cups and dishes that they are not to be sold? Obviously because he can say, ‘The inferior quality is repulsive to me’, but then, in respect of a bed and table also, he might say the cheaper article is unacceptable to me... R. Papa replied: The one (The Mishnah from Pe'ah, according to which one is not compelled to sell his articles of service) refers to a man before he was compelled to publicly collect alms (and is discreetly supported by his relatives and friends), and the other refers to a man who reached such poverty that is so compelled" (R. Papa's argument was translated here according to Maimonides' and other commentators' interpretation which was accepted in the final ruling of the Halacha). Maimonides explains R. Papa's argument (Commentary on the Mishnah Pe'ah VIII, 8) that once a needy person collects alms publicly, he must sell his costly goods, because once he collects alms he must not needlessly deplete the funds available to other people in need. However, one may ask that even when a person in need is discreetly supported by his relatives or friends, if such a support is unwarranted, because he could sell his costly goods and support himself, he still unnecessarily depletes the funds that his relatives and friends would have made available to other people in need – who may be other relatives or friends of his supporters, or needy strangers. Why then is he permitted to hold on to his expensive belongings? Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the renowned nineteenth century Torah authority, made a brilliant innovation (Chatham Sofer volume II Yoreh De'ah 239), from which an important ruling is deduced. It is written in the Torah (Vayikra 25, 35): "If your brother has become poor, and his means fail with you; then you shall relieve him". The Sages interpreted this as ordering us to support those that are about to be financially ruined. The commandment "you shall relieve him" is interpreted as "do not let him fall down – it is like a laden donkey, as long as he is still standing on his own feet, one person alone can easily support him, but once he has fallen down five men will not be sufficient to get him upright." At first glance this seems to be no more than a sound social advice. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, however, claims that we find here two sets of rules for giving charity. One such set applies to a person who is about to become poor, the purpose of charity being to "relieve him", and the other set applies to a person who is ruined already, and must be supported in this state. The relief that should be extended, in the first situation, should prevent the person's fall psychologically as well as financially. An attempt must be made to maintain the person in need in his previous personal and social status, so he may remain standing on his own feet – namely retain his dignity and social standing. Once a person has fallen already, all that can be done for him is to supply his basic needs until G-d will have mercy and redeem him from his degrading situation. The distinction made in R. Papa's argument between a person "before he came under the dire circumstance that compels him to publicly collect alms," and a person who already came under such circumstance, is indeed a distinction between a person who – at least outwardly – is standing on his own feet, and must be helped to continue doing so, and a person who has already fallen down. It is not the source of support – whether from the community or from relatives and friends – that matters, but the needy person's situation. The ruling that follows is that a person of the first category should be supported regardless of the expense of personal goods he owns, and the quality of his dwellings. This ruling goes deep into the definition of charity in Jewish Law. The famous thirteenth century treatise on the Torah's commandments, Sefer Ha'chinuch, attributed to Rabbi Aaron Ha'Levy of Barcelona (commandment 66), claims that the reason G-d commanded us to do charity is not because he wanted to help the poor "had it been so, G-d Himself could have provided for the poor without our help." There are two other reasons to the commandment of doing charity "G-d wanted His creatures to be educated and trained in mercy and compassion, because it is a praiseworthy trait, and by acquiring good characteristics these creatures will deserve receiving G-d's infinite good. Another reason for charity is that G-d wished the poor person's subsistence will have to be supplied by people (and not by G-d Himself) because this person sinned, and will thus repent." It seems that these two reasons cover the two types of charity defined by Rabbi Moshe Sofer. The first type, covered by the first reason, must not be patronizing, but must rather stem from a deep identification with the needy person. Hence the help offered to the needy person cannot be accompanied by a demand of lowering his style in a way that he find "repulsive". King David sang in Psalms (41) "Happy is he who considers the poor; the Lord will save him in the day of evil." The Yerushalmi Talmud (Pe'ah VIII, 8) tells us about R. Yonah who knew how to "consider the poor". When he came across a formerly affluent person who fell upon hard times, he used to give him money, telling him "I have just heard that there is a bequest due to you, I am lending you money until you will receive this inheritance". Considering the poor is the opposite of patronizing him, and dictating his lifestyle, because he needs help. However, when one reached the second category of need, he is punished for his sins by having people taking charge of his life – it is a necessary evil in such circumstances. Rabbi Sofer adds that Rabbi Yacov Ba'al Ha'Turim, in his codex (Yoreh De'ah siman 253) rules that even a needy person of the first category, may retain only his costly dishes and cutlery, but not other costly articles. He explains that the Gemarah quoted above defines alternative utensils as being "repulsive" for some people not used to poverty, but alternative furniture are defined as "unacceptable". When the gifts to the poor were given from the harvest, and were left in the field by the owner to the poor people to help themselves, a needy person did not have to degrade himself even by using "unacceptable" furniture. But once charity consists of money which has to be donated, the needy person must make an effort on his side; try to accept the "unacceptable" and spare himself only from changes that he really finds "repulsive". This is not a patronizing attitude, but one considers the situation from the needy person's own perspective. Every person feels diffident about being helped out, and will feel better if he made his own effort to help himself. Since the gifts to the poor that are left in the field, or dedicated already, pose less of a problem than money donated expressly for the poor man, he should make a greater effort in the latter case. Hence, approaching the unemployed trying to help them before they were in such a dire situation as to approach the community was a proper act which is required by Halacha. Moreover, since charity is given to install traits of mercy and sympathy in the donors, such charity takes precedent over any other charity, especially for people outside the community, especially as such charity poses a greater challenge to the donors personal traits – it is much easier to help a person in real suffering, than a person who is about to suffer poverty. However, the package offered is not a proper one. The people who lost their jobs should be offered help that will enable them to keep their former situation, and they, on their own, should try to cut down on their expenses wherever it is possible for them. If as a result the funds collected are not adequate to help all these people, these funds should be divided among them, and hopefully G-d will do the rest, once humans did proper charity showing the right measure of considering the poor.

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