Charity for the Non-Working Poor

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by R. Gil Student

(Please see the follow-up and correction to this essay: link)

Mark Tooley of the Institue of Religion and Democracy informs us of a recent congressional hearing about food stamps for the non-working poor. Apparently a Jewish advocacy group provided testimony that the Jewish tradition requires providing assistance regardless of the recipients’ circumstances (UPDATE: see the follow-up correction). This does not adequately reflect what Jewish tradition has to say about giving charity to those who can, but choose not to, work. We have a legal tradition that has addressed this issue.

The most famous source to discuss this is R. Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, in his Keli Yakar Torah commentary (Ex. 23:5), in which he compares charity to the following law in that verse:

כי תראה חמור שנאך רבץ תחת משאו וחדלת מעזב לו עזב תעזב עמו

If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you shall surely help him with it.

Note that you only have to “help him” with it, i.e. only if he also participates (Bava Metzi’a 32a). Otherwise you do not have to help. So too, writes R. Luntschitz, you only have to help someone by giving him charity if he will help himself also by working. If he is physically unable to work then he is exempt from doing so. However, the non-working poor cannot demand help without exerting any effort to help themselves.

In an interview I conducted with R. Hershel Schachter for Jewish Action magazine, he said:

There is absolutely no mitzvah of tzedakah [charity] in this case. The mitzvah of tzedakah is to give to a poor person. Someone who has the ability to earn a living is not considered poor. I am not obligated to give him tzedakah just because he decided to retire at the age of twenty.

R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky (Emes Le-Ya’akov, Yoreh De’ah 253:1 n. 141, brought to my attention by R. Ari Enkin) writes that you may refuse to give charity in order to encourage someone to work. However, to avoid neglect and hard-heartendness, you have to verify, every time, that the individual chooses not to work and is not somehow sick and physically or mentally unable to work.

R. Aharon Lichtenstein reaches a slightly different conclusion. R. Lichtenstein quotes the Medieval Talmudic commentator, Menachem Meiri (Kiddushin 8b), who is unsure about the rule in such a case. R. Lichtenstein reaches the following conclusion:

The aspect of charity that derives from an obligation to walk in God’s ways is unconditional and applies even to someone who will not help himself. However, the interpersonal aspect does not. Therefore, while you are still required to give charity to such a person, the obligation is contextual based on the specific circumstances and might even be set aside in preference for other opportunities to walk in God’s ways.

Note, in particular, the following statement by R. Lichtenstein (p. 18):

There is indeed a saying that “God helps those who help themselves,” which implies that He does not help those who don’t help themselves; and whole generations of people who ignored the unfortunate, and even abused them, soothed their consciences with this idea. This, however, is not the Jewish outlook.

According to R. Lichtenstein, we must charitably help everyone regardless of whether they contribute to their own survival. On the other hand, context matters. For example, we can look at the reason why the person is not working. Is it because he “sneers as society and expects it to support him” or because he cannot find a job that matches his training and background? These details matter in determining whether to offer charity to someone who chooses not to support himself. R. Lichtenstein concludes that “the effort to encourage sensitivity on the one hand and responsibility on the other… reflects Halakha’s values.”

It is a shame that Jewish advocacy groups project a limited vision of the Jewish tradition. Clearly, other groups more faithful to tradition need to clarify to the public what Judaism teaches.

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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