Not Ignoring the Impoverished

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Soon enough, not long after Parshat Shemot, the Torah will give us mitzvot in the parsha itself. While we’re waiting, She’iltot points us in the direction of caring about fellow Jews of straitened financial circumstances, I think because Moshe Rabbenu’s choice to leave the palace to check on his brothers’ welfare, risking his status to defend a fellow Jew from the Egyptian beating him, was an early sign of his worthiness to lead the Jewish people. And it started the events that took him out of Egypt to go to Midian.

The Prohibition—Not Giving,

Rambam follows She’iltot in counting both a prohibition and an obligation. We looked at the obligation to support the poor back in Parshat Re’eh (Obligations 295 and Mitzvah 479 in Rambam and Sefer Ha-Hinuch, respectively). Prohibition 232 warns against withholding charity and support from evyonim, using the word from Devarim 15;7, we may not harden our hearts nor shut our hands to our evyon brothers.  The prohibition applies only to those who know the others’ situation and have the ability to strengthen them (not solve their problem, I think he means, just help).

Rambam spoke of charity and support, Sefer Ha-Hinuch 478 uses hessed and tzedakah, the first usually taken to mean kindness, and he also says from our brethren Jews, inserting a sense of connection to the evyone Rambam had not. Sefer Ha-Hinuch also adds “all the more so our relatives,” the idea of prioritizing closer relatives for tzedakah.

What Ignoring the Poor Does to Us

Although he does not generally engage in philosophical discussions in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Rambam adds that this is a warning against acquiring the character trait of stinginess and insensitivity to others’ problems, traits that lead us to refrain from doing what is proper. [The word in the Hebrew is achzariyut; I have no idea what the Arabic is. In modern Hebrew, we usually translate achzariyut as cruelty, but I think for Rambam it meant insensitivity; to understand why, see the beginning of Hilchot Ta’aniyot.]

Sefer Ha-Hinuch sources the idea to the verse itself. Sefaria translated lo te’ametz et levavecha, do not harden your heart; Sefer Ha-Hinuch instead takes it to mean not to let the characteristics of stinginess and nevalah (Sefaria: villainy, although a naval is more generally a person of bad character) rule over us (do not make your heart one of imutz), to prepare our hearts instead to respond generously and compassionately to all causes.

He closes with reassurance fulfilling the mitzvah will not decrease the giver’s resources, because it will lead God to bless the person, and a small moment of God’s blessings are better than any treasures of gold and silver.

Aruch HaShulhan Yoreh De’ah 247;2 adds to the way tradition expressed its disapproval of the person who ignores others’ needs. Based on Ketubot 68a, he says the person is thence called a beliya’al (a word I found translated three different ways in Sefaria on Tanach, scoundrel, depraved, and worthless), and is as if s/he has worshipped a power other than God.

The beliya’al part is from Baba Batra 10a, where the Gemara points out Devarim 15;9 (two verses after the one stating the prohibition), warns against letting a devar beliya’al, a beliya’al thought, guide your actions, the fear of the shemittah year. From there to idolatry is a short step, because Devarim 14;13 called the people who convinced a city to worship a power other than God benei beliya’al.

How Much to Give

The mitzvah of tzedakah called for a Jew to fill all the poor person’s needs, in theory, but Aruch Ha-Shulhan Yoreh De’ah 249;3 was clear about the impossibility of doing so, that the Torah did not mean a Jew must give away all s/he has. He does not clarify whether our mitzvah—lo te’ametz–has the same standard, that we cannot ignore the impoverished person until s/he has been given dei mahsoro, what s/he lacks, although he quotes both verses, implying they have the same standard. Where I probably thought a Jew avoids violating lo te’ametz with any response, Aruch Ha-Shulhan at least implies that until the Jew gives what s/he reasonably can to that poor person, the giver still violates lo te’ametz.

[I am perhaps overstating. Especially for those who—laudably—have clear tzedakah accounts, perhaps a nominal gift to each random poor counts as “what s/he can do” in that situation.]

To Whom

Sefer Ha-Hinuch had mentioned an idea we saw prominently in the mitzvah of tzedakah, to give relatives first, then residents of one’s own city, then the poor of Israel, then others. In 251;1, Aruch Ha-Shulhan also again quotes our source-verse, ve-lo tikpotz, just before he quotes Sifrei’s prioritizations. Sifrei gives preference to a paternal brother over a maternal one. [This is a broad issue, with different answers in different places, but family in halachah seems to follow the paternal side more than the maternal one, for reasons we would have to discuss at length, and for which I have a theory I cannot prove.]

He also cites Tanna De-Bei Eliyahu 27, which went farther back in the family tree, said to feed a parent before anyone else, and in 251;3, Aruch Ha-Shulhan records an idea of R. Sa’adya Gaon’s the Tur shared, a person must be sure s/he has enough for him/herself. [When I was a student,  a friend in the Beit Midrash, already married, told me his rabbi—a well-known authority– had exempted him from giving a tenth of his income to charity. His $18,000 a year seemed like a lot to the single me at the time, so the ruling stunned me; then I got married.]

 Aruch Ha-Shulhan is sure R. Sa’adya Gaon meant only for whether to give regularly and how much, but every Jew, even one living off of charity, must give some charity every year [there is a character element to charity in addition to the economic one]. When giving, Aruch Ha-Shulhan rejects the most literal reading of Sifrei or Tanna De-Bei Eliyahu, which seem to say we only give beyond family once every one in the family is fully taken care of.

If we did that, the relative-less poor would die of starvation, says Aruch Ha-Shulhan. Rather, he prescribes giving somewhat to all worthy causes, more to the ones closer to us. [He does not specifically bring up lo te’ametz, but it seems to me to fit well, because the Jew must give to whatever cause, lest s/he become desensitized.] He also limits R. Sa’adya Gaon’s “ensure your own livelihood first” idea, because most people of his time would claim they did not have enough yet. [I have heard from people who sit on tuition-waiver committee that they are approached, in all sincerity, by people who have large homes, new or slightly used cars, send their children to summer camp, and take vacations; the question of when we have “enough” is not simple.] R. Sa’adya Ga’on must have meant that someone who literally has enough only to put bare shelter over his/her head, only basic food and clothing for immediate family, such a person need not give. Once we have more, it has to be part of our budget.

Pidyon Shevuyim

A late entry to our prohibition comes in 252;1, where Aruch Ha-Shulhan brings up Rambam from Laws of Gifts to the Poor 8;10, who says redeeming captives comes before supporting the poor, because captives (who often did not have clothes, either) are considered among the hungry (hungry poor are more pressing in general), the naked, and are in mortal danger.

Ignoring their needs, too, violates lo te’ametz and many more prohibitions. Aruch Ha-Shulhan says what is thankfully usually true in our times as well, we rarely see pidyon shevuyim. [I do remember when Iranian Jews were fleeing their country in the late 1970s; Ner Yisrael in Baltimore made a special effort to find homes for young men from Iran, and cousins of mine took in one such young man, clothed him, made him part of the family.]

The flip side of giving charity, is being alert and sensitive to the needs of others, not letting ourselves ignore those needs.

About Gidon Rothstein

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