Lending to the Poor

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Mishpatim

It’s been a long time since I first learned about Rambam’s eight levels of tzedakah, the highest form of which was making sure the poor person had a job, and/or lending a person money to start a business and be able to support him/herself. Only some time after, when I went through Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, did I realize he separates lending a poor person, makes it a separate mitzvah, Obligation 197.

Rambam’s Definition of the Mitzvah

His basic definition does not surprise, we are commanded to lend to a poor person to ease his/her circumstances. He says this mitzvah is the strongest and more obligatory part of the whole commandment of tzedakah, and gives a reason that sheds light on why this would be its own mitzvah.

Someone who has descended to the point of having to ask outright for alms will never recover as fully as one who never got to that point, never had his/her financial distress become a public matter, was never humiliated that way.

Sefer Ha-Hinukh, Mitzvah 66 adds this person will also suffer the fear of the impending embarrassment, meaning we are saving him/her from the shame as well as easing the fear. Sefer Ha-Hinukh adds that after we give, God will bring some success to this person, who will be able to repay his/her lenders, and live off the rest.

The Humiliation of Needing Charity

(I pause to note Rambam twice used this root, bzh, in the Hebrew translation of Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, a verb that means something along the lines of to be despised, overly exposed, humiliated. I bring it up because I am not sure Jews today all remember the issue; in our laudable efforts to reduce the shame of those who really need our help, some circles have made it acceptable to choose to become dependent on charity.

Rambam reminds us of the two sides of the equation, we should help those in need, should perform our mitzvah, lend them money to help them avoid becoming people in need; and at the same time should remember it is a sign of life having gone wrong if we do need.)

He quotes Mekhilta, in both Yitro and Mishpatim, which proved the obligation from a verse in Mishpatimim kesef talveh et ami, taken to mean when you lend members of My nation (the im here a requirement, a when, not “if”).
To prove it, Mekhilta added Devarim 15;8, where ve-ha’avet ta’avitenu, you must lend him, is more unequivocal.

Filling What Is Lacking

Sefer Ha-Hinukh highlights the end of the verse in Devarimdei mahsoro, what he is missing, taken by the Gemara to mean the obligation does not end until the poor person has what s/he used to [the Gemara tells of Hillel serving as the rickshaw driver for a man accustomed to such service]. Sefer Ha-Hinukh phrases it as giving as much as we are able to ease the person’s anguish.

[This is a challenging standard, easily susceptible to abuse, that is not our topic. The idea of a largely unattainable obligation—since who can really fill all the lacks of poor people?—reminds me of a story a man told years ago that I didn’t get at the time. I recently contacted him, and he told me it was told to him by the late Marvin Schick, a model of efforts on behalf of Jewish causes.

The story was of a fundraiser seeking, let’s say $100,000 from a group of donors, who were all tense, because there really was $100K around the table. Then he looked at his notes and said, oh, sorry, I meant $5 million, and they all relaxed, because there was not 5 million around the table.

When we can’t possibly do what we should, we sometimes free ourselves to do as little as we want.]

Making Us Better, Worthy of God’s Generosity

We are used to Sefer Ha-Hinukh providing reasons for the mitzvah, but here I would have thought we already know the reason—to save a poor person from further degradation. Instead, Sefer Ha-Hinukh focuses on the impact on the giver, that Hashem wants all of us to achieve the character traits of kindness and compassion (the Hebrew is melumadim u-murgalim, trained and accustomed, which might suggest he thinks we continually train ourselves in traits like these, not achieve them).

Again, I might have stopped there, where he kept going. By readying our bodies with these good traits (he implies character is a physical matter, that by performing these acts of kindness, we turn our bodies into kinder ones), we make them more worthy of God’s goodness. As he has said before, good and blessing always comes to those who are good, so God gave us the chance to be good, so we could receive good.

Otherwise, God could do it Himself, as it were. The only reason to make us His messengers is to let us merit reward and bounty.

Or, To Retrain the Poor Person Through Suffering

He then offers a second reason, the mitzvah is God’s way of providing for the poor person while also making him/her suffer (there seems to be an assumption that poverty comes for sin), having to bear the shame of being supported by someone else, and having to restrict his/her budget until back on firmer financial footing.

Three readings of the mitzvah, all with elements I could imagine people today questioning. First, the mitzvah is to educate the giver in the traits of kindness and compassion, not primarily to help the poor person; second, the point of such education is to make us worthy of God’s bounty; and, possibly, to provide for the poor person in a way that gives him/her a dose of embarrassment (despite the mitzvah being precisely to avoid the worse embarrassment of straight-out donations!), to help the poor person atone his/her sins.

Minhat Hinukh’s Inclusive List of Recipients of Our Lending

Minhat Hinukh points out Tur Hoshen Mishpat 97 assumed the priorities we learn about in tzedakah itself-relatives come first, the poor of one’s city before those of other cities, of Israel before the poor of other places, etc.—apply to choices about whom to lend money, where Rambam omitted the issue in terms of lending.

(It might be because lending is relevant even to someone only currently illiquid, despite being wealthy in general, as Minhat Hinukh notes; or because Rambam in Mishneh Torah includes lending in tzedakahKessef Mishneh sourced the idea of prioritization of recipients to a Gemara that was in fact about lending, so Rambam may have thought it went without saying.)

Minhat Hinukh also calls our attention to Rambam in Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10;7, because he quotes a different verse to source the idea of lending, Vayikra 25;35. There, the verse speaks of ger ve-toshav, terms that include a ger toshav, a non-Jew who accepts enough of our Torah worldview to be allowed to live in Israel. It suggests to him the Torah means to obligate us to lend to such non-Jews, should they be in need, although Rambam, Sefer Ha-Hinukh, Tur, and Shulhan Arukh all speak specifically of Jews.

He insists those sources do not clinch the matter, because they may have been writing the halakha as we observe it today, when it is impossible to have gerei toshav, a status we can only have when yovel is back in force. [He seems to think Rambam did not always write the halakha as it will be, although he often does, as for example when he first describes the Seder with a Paschal sacrifice, and only later comes around to how we do it today.]

For his final surprise group, Minhat Hinukh says the mitzvah requires us to lend to an eved Kena’ani, too, a non-Jew who partially converted to serve a Jewish master. He is sure such a partial convert also counts as ah, a brother, and part of the am, the nation.

In his view, in other words, we consider to whom to lend money in ways very similar to charity, while including in our plausible recipients partially converted non-Jews and, in a world of yovel, those non-Jews who chose to live in Israel, throwing in their lot with the Jewish worldview.

Some Responsibilities of the Borrower

Arukh Ha-Shulhan Hoshen Mishpat spends most of siman 97 on issues of collection, when  the lender can take collateral and how, what the borrower is left to keep if s/he cannot pay the loan, and more. For us here, on the mitzvah of lending, I found most relevant his comments in paragraph three, the lender may not ask the borrower for repayment if s/he knows the borrower cannot repay [unless it is past time, and s/he goes to the court].

But so, too, the borrower. Mishlei 3;28 tells us not to say to our lenders come back tomorrow if we have the money now, a verse Arukh Ha-Shulhan is sure creates a prohibition mi-divrei Kabbalah, set up by verses later in Tanakh.

Doing so runs afoul of another verse, Tehillim 37;21 calls the borrower who does not pay back a rasha, an evildoer. Arukh Ha-Shulhan assumes the verse also requires the borrower to use the money for real needs, not waste it and then be unable to pay. Where a lender knows the borrower will handle it this way, better not to lend him and have to go to the trouble to collect.

We lend the poor to tide them over, perhaps with a dash of embarrassing atonement mixed in, and to teach ourselves good character, to merit God’s goodness. With hopes the lenders and borrowers handle the transactions responsibly and well, increasing the righteousness of the Jewish people as a whole.

About Gidon Rothstein

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