– Author: Rav Sam Millunchick

Tzedaka (charity) is often held up as an ideal among Jewish communities, both by those who consider themselves to be Torah-observant and by those who do not, and this is as it should be. However, in the process of actualizing the value of tzedaka, many times the halacha is ignored in favor of policies of giving that feel more correct and are more immediately satisfying. Unfortunately, this can have grave long-term consequences for the society as a whole and may in fact contradict the foundational principles of the Torah’s view of a charitable society. While it is difficult to find exact parallels to modern society in our ancient texts, one can attempt to distill principles from them, which can then be applied to contemporary contexts. It is important to note that the Torah is not merely a system of disconnected rules and regulations. Rather, the Torah is trying to create a certain type of society, and to that end, the societal framework of the Torah shines through all of its various halachot, including those surrounding charity. In this brief exploration of the halachot of tzedaka, we will attempt to evaluate the claim that a welfare society is sanctioned by the Torah, and indeed that it may even be the optimal mode of actualizing the principles that underpin the Torah’s views on charity.

What is a Welfare State?

Wikipedia[1] defines a welfare state as: “A form of government in which the state protects and promotes the economic and social well-being of the citizens, based upon the principles of equal opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for citizens unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.” Rav Eliezer Melamed[2] explains the ideology behind the welfare state: “According to their conception [of society], every human has a natural right to live in relative comfort, as defined by the society… it is his right to demand that society provide him with that which most of the other people in that society have. If society doesn’t fulfill this duty, then it is they who are responsible for inequality and must be ashamed by this. For wealth is communal, and therefore when there are people in the society who live with more wealth than others, they are considered as if they are exploiting the poor and living at their expense.”

There are two key ideas to point out in the above quotes. The first is the idea that there is a fundamental human right to live with relative wealth. The idea of inequality is anathema in this conception of society, and therefore it is seen as legitimate that those who create wealth and have wealth ought to provide for those with less. The second key idea, a logical outcropping of a society bent on destroying inequality, is that equitable distribution of wealth has become the state’s responsibility, rather than any particular individual. If someone is needy, it is the state’s responsibility to provide for them. The state has the right, through taxes and other means, to appropriate wealth and redistribute it as it sees fit.

Does this idea of the forced central redistribution of wealth fit in with the type of society that the Torah is trying to create?

The Basic Obligation to Give Charity

The Torah states in Devarim (15:8):

כִּֽי־פָתֹ֧חַ תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ֖ ל֑וֹ וְהַֽעֲבֵט֙ תַּֽעֲבִיטֶ֔נּוּ דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֶחְסַ֖ר לֽוֹ.

“Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.”

This verse becomes the source for the mitzvah of tzedaka, as the Rambam[3] writes:

והמצוה הקצ”ה היא שצוונו לעשות צדקה ולחזק החלשים ולהרחיב עליהם. וכבר בא הציווי במצוה זו במלות מתחלפות. אמר יתעלה (ראה טו ח) פתוח תפתח את ידך וכו’ ואמר (בהר לה) והחזקת בו גר ותושב וכו’ ואמר (שם לו) וחי אחיך עמך. והכוונה באלו הלשונות כולם אחת והיא שנעזור עניינו ונחזקם די ספקם.

The 195th mitzvah is the commandment to do tzedaka and uphold the weak and relieve their stress. This commandment is stated in many different ways. God said, “Open your hand,” (Devarim 15:8), and He said, “and you should support the stranger and the resident” (Vaykira 25:35), and He said, “and your brother should live with you” (ibid. 36). And the intention in all of these verses is the same, namely that we should help the poor and provide for their needs.

The Rambam writes the same thing in his Mishneh Torah,[4] as do the Tur[5] and the Shulchan Aruch.[6]

Now that we understand that there is a basic obligation to give charity and support the downtrodden in our society, it behooves us to delve deeper into the details to discover who qualifies for such help, when, and in what circumstances. More fundamentally, we must discover the scope of one individual’s obligation – does this apply to family, friends, one’s neighborhood or city, or perhaps the world? How far do the ripples of obligation reach?

Who Does One Give Tzedaka to?

We can use a framework of concentric circles to understand an individual’s obligations of tzedaka. The Gemara[7] states that tzedaka begins at home, with one’s own children. Halachically, one is not obligated to provide for his children from the age of six, so any provisions he makes for them after that age are considered tzedaka. The first circle is thus one’s immediate family.

The Sifrei,[8] in its discussion of the pasuk in Devarim 15:7, expands our circles:

כי יהיה בך, ולא באחרים. אביון, תאב תאב קודם. אחיך, זה אחיך מאביך כשהוא אומר מאחד אחיך, מלמד שאחיך מאביך קודם לאחיך מאמך. באחד שעריך, יושבי עירך קודמים ליושבי עיר אחרת. בארצך, יושבי הארץ קודמים ליושבי חוצה לארץ. כשהוא אומר באחד שעריך היה יושב במקום אחד אתה מצוה לפרנסו היה מחזר על הפתחים אי אתה זקוק לו לכל דבר. אשר ה’ אלהיך נתן לך, בכל מקום

When there will be in your midst,” [in your midst] and not by others. “A poor person,” the neediest takes precedence, “Your brother,” your brother from your father, so when the pasuk says “from one of your brothers,” it means to say that your brother from your father takes precedence over your brother from your mother. “In one of your gates,” those in your city take precedence over those in another city. “In your land,” those in your country take precedence over those in another country. When the pasuk says: “In one of your gates,” it means that if he was in one place you need to help him, but if he goes door to door you don’t need to help him as much. “That which God gives you,” [even those] anywhere in the world.

According to this Midrash halacha, we are at the center of concentric circles of obligation, each level connected to us just slightly less than the one before. Indeed, when this din is brought in the Shulchan Aruch,[9] the Rema comments: “One’s own welfare comes before any other person.” What the Rema is telling us is simple but powerful, and is a point to which we will return later on in the essay – one is, first and foremost, responsible for oneself.

If we pause and evaluate our thesis in the light of these concentric circles, we see that rather than a welfare state allowing us to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedaka in a more productive way, a welfare state actually destroys the vision of personal responsibility in which one has to look out for his fellow. If one can outsource one’s tzedaka needs to the central government, then one’s personal sensitivity towards those who are less fortunate dwindles. In the words of Rav Melamed:[10]

When one places the financial responsibility for the poor person on his relatives and neighbors, they will attempt with all their ability to find him a job, so that he will be able to earn a living by himself and won’t be a constant burden, and through this they will help him to get back on his feet. However, when the poor person receives a stipend from the government, his relatives relieve themselves of any responsibility and don’t make enough of an effort to ensure that he will work and earn a living. The damage this causes is deep and lasting, for in many circumstances, once the poor person becomes accustomed to the stipends and charity, he loses his honor and ability to stand on his own two feet; he becomes a bad example for his children, and the chances that they will succeed in getting out of the circle of poverty diminishes.

Who is Considered Poor?

The Mishna in Peah[11] discusses who may take charity from public funds (kupah and tamchui):

משנה ז

אין פוחתין לעני העובר ממקום למקום מככר בפונדיון מארבע סאין בסלע. לן, נותנין לו פרנסת לינה. שבת, נותנין לו מזון שלש סעודות. מי שיש לו מזון שתי סעודות לא יטול מן התמחוי, מזון ארבע עשרה סעודות לא יטול מן הקופה. והקופה נגבית בשנים ומתחלקת בשלשה.

משנה ח

מי שיש לו מאתים זוז לא יטול לקט שכחה ופאה ומעשר עני. היו לו מאתים חסר דינר אפילו אלף נותנין לו כאחת הרי זה יטול. היו ממושכנים לבעל חובו או לכתובת אשתו הרי זה יטול. אין מחייבין אותו למכור את ביתו ואת כלי תשמישו.

Mishna 6

One should not give a travelling pauper less than less than a loaf that is the price of a pundion, when four seah [of grain] cost a sela. If he stays over, one should give him enough money to get a hotel room. If he stays over Shabbat, one should give him three meals worth of food. One who has enough food for two meals shouldn’t take from the soup kitchen (tamchui), and one who has enough food for fourteen meals shouldn’t take from the weekly charity box (kupa). The weekly charity box is collected with two people and is distributed with three.

Mishna 8

One who has two hundred zuz shouldn’t take leket, shichecha, pe’ah, or ma’aser ani. If he had almost two hundred, even if one thousand people give him at once, he may accept. If his money was mortgaged as part of his wedding contract or another debt, he may take [charity]. We don’t force him to sell his house or possessions in order not to take charity.

The Mishna outlines three basic categories of poor people. First, there is the person who is not starving, but doesn’t have a large amount of money. He may take general tzedaka like leket, shichecha, and pe’ah, but he may not take more direct forms of charity, like from the tamchui or the kupa. The second level of poverty is one who doesn’t have enough food to last him for the week. This person is allowed to take both general tzedaka and also to feed himself from the kupa. The third, and most destitute, doesn’t have enough food to last one day. This person may take from all the available resources.

It is not entirely clear, though, which types of assets should be included with regard to determining a person’s wealth. Are we discussing purely liquid assets, as it seems from the Mishna, or do we take a person’s total financial picture into account? A cursory reading of the Mishna tells us that, at a minimum, there are certain protected assets, which aren’t liable to be sold in order to sustain oneself before taking charity.

The Gemara[12] explores this further:

תנן התם: אין מחייבין אותו למכור את ביתו ואת כלי תשמישו. ולא? והתניא. היה משתמש בכלי זהב – ישתמש בכלי כסף, בכלי כסף – ישתמש בכלי נחושת! אמר רב זביד, לא קשיא: הא במטה ושולחן, הא בכוסות וקערות. מאי שנא כוסות וקערות דלא? דאמר מאיסי לי, מטה ושולחן נמי אמר לא מקבל עילואי. אמר רבא בריה דרבה: במחרישה דכספא. רב פפא אמר, לא קשיא: כאן קודם שיבא לידי גיבוי, כאן לאחר שיבא לידי גיבוי.

It was taught in a Mishna: “One is not obligated to sell his house or possessions.” Is this the case? We learn in a baraita that “if he had gold utensils, he should use silver [and sell the gold]. If he had silver, he should use bronze.” Answers Rav Zvid: This isn’t a question. The case of the Mishna [where one is obligated to sell] was talking about a bed and table, whereas the case of the baraita is referring to cups and bowls. What is the difference concerning cups and bowls that one need not sell them? They might say that it’s disgusting to eat from lesser dishes. If so, say that about the bed and table as well! Rather says Rava the son of Rabba: We’re talking about a silver comb. Rav Papa says, “There is no difficulty: There we’re talking about when he still isn’t being supported by the community, and here we’re talking about where he has taken support.

The Gemara, in explaining the Mishna in Peah, tells us that there are certain categories of items that we do obligate the potential poor person to sell to avoid falling below the poverty line of two hundred zuz. Which items are protected and which aren’t is a dispute among the Rishonim.

Rashi[13] explains that one is obligated to sell his possessions only when he dishonestly takes from tzedaka. In this case, if he can no longer repay the money because he became poor, then he must sell his possessions to pay back his debt. If he was honestly poor, though, there is no need to sell any possessions.

Tosafot[14] explain that when he moves from the first level of poverty to the second, namely that he is now taking from the weekly kupa, then he must sell his things. Tosafot understand that the first level is hefker, charity which is not allocated to a particular person, whereas the public funds from the kupa are only for the truly poverty-stricken.

The Ritva[15] explains that those items that he owned before he became poor he need not sell, but expensive items that were purchased after he became poor must be sold. According to the Ritva, it would be incongruous for one to claim to be poor and buy an expensive smartphone with one’s welfare stipend; in such a case, we would not allow for further charity to be given until all luxury items bought after that person became poor were sold.

The Shita Mekubetzet[16] brings an opinion in the name of the “French Rabbis” that if one has two items that are the same, only one is more expensive than the other, such as a Kiddush cup from gold and silver, then we would obligate the person to sell the more expensive one before he took charity, whether from the first level (leket, etc.) or the second and third (kupa/tamchui).

The Rif[17] gives an interpretation that is somewhat akin to that of the Geonim (that is quoted in the following section) that where one takes in private (leket, etc. or other private charity), there is no obligation to sell one’s items to support oneself. However, once the person is on the official charity rolls at the kupa/tamchui, he must first sell his possessions. This seems to be the position of the Rambam[18] as well.

The Tur[19] synthesises the various opinions as follows:

יש לו בית וכלי בית הרבה ואין לו מאתים זוז ה”ז יטול ואין צריך למכור כלי ביתו ואפילו הם כלי כסף וכלי זהב. בד“א בכלי אכילה ושתייה ומצעות וכיוצא בהן, אבל יש לו מנורה או שלחן של כסף וכיוצא בהן צריך למכור ולא יטול מהצדקה. והא דאין מחייבין אותו למכור כלי תשמישיו של כסף וזהב דוקא כל זמן שאין צריך ליטול מהקופה אלא מקבל בסתם מיחידים ומקרוביו ויכולין ליתן לו, וא”צ למכור כליו, אבל אם בא ליטול מהקופה של צדקה לא יתנו לו אלא ימכור כליו.

If he has many possessions but doesn’t have enough cash to stay above the poverty line, we don’t make him sell his things, even if they’re made of silver and gold. This is only where he has food and drink utensils of these precious metals. However, if he has a lamp or table of silver or the like, he must sell them and not take charity. And this is only the case where he isn’t taking from the public coffers (kupa/tamchui) but rather is taking from individuals. However, when he is taking from the kupa he must sell his possessions first.

This is how the Shulchan Aruch[20] rules as well.

From this entire fascinating discussion about what exactly defines a poor person, it is easy to see that the Torah’s weltanschauung is one where only people who have the very bare minimum are provided for out of public coffers. There are those who are in a slightly more well-off position, and these people are allowed to take individual charity up to the minimum poverty line of two hundred zuz. Above that, there doesn’t seem to any heter to take charity, even from an individual, as the Gemara[21] writes: “One who takes charity when it’s unnecessary will live to see the day when he needs to take charity to survive.”

What Must One Provide for a Poor Person?

As we read in the pasuk quoted from Devarim (15:8), we must provide for the poor person “sufficient for his needs, that which is lacking.” The Gemara[22] discusses the definition of these two terms.

תנו רבנן: די מחסורו – אתה מצווה עליו לפרנסו, ואי אתה מצווה עליו לעשרו; אשר יחסר לו – אפילו סוס לרכוב עליו ועבד לרוץ לפניו. אמרו עליו על הלל הזקן, שלקח לעני בן טובים אחד סוס לרכוב עליו ועבד לרוץ לפניו; פעם אחת לא מצא עבד לרוץ לפניו, ורץ לפניו שלשה מילין.

Our rabbis taught: “Sufficient for his needs” — you are commanded to support him, but not make him rich. “that which is lacking” — even a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him. They said about Hillel the Elder that one time he took for a certain poor person from a wealthy background a horse and servant to run before him. One time, he couldn’t find a servant, and he ran before him himself.

There is a critical distinction to be made here, between that which he is lacking — which we are commanded to provide for him — and that which will make him rich, which does not fall within the rubric of tzedaka. The Rishonim understood this category in different ways. Rabbeinu Yona[23] writes that there is only an obligation to sustain someone at this high level if they were accustomed to it in the past. For example, were Bill Gates to suddenly lose everything, the obligation would be to keep him, as much as possible, at the level of comfort that he was used to before he went bankrupt. However, one is not enjoined to enrich someone who is not used to such a high standard of living. The Geonim[24] write that one is obligated to give such a high level of tzedaka only in order to prevent embarrassment of the previously rich person. But once word gets out that he has lost his money, there is no longer any need to sustain his lifestyle at such a high level; rather, he reverts to the same standard as all other poor people. It seems that Bill Gates wouldn’t fare so well according to this opinion, as word would travel quickly that he was bankrupt, and he would be entitled to only the basic fare.

In his discussion of what one must give to a poor person, the Shulchan Aruch[25] writes:

כמה נותנין לעני, די מחסורו אשר יחסר לו. כיצד, אם היה רעב, יאכילוהו. היה צריך לכסות, יכסוהו. אין לו כלי בית, קונה לו כלי בית. ואפילו אם היה דרכו לרכוב על סוס ועבד לרוץ לפניו כשהיה עשיר, והעני, קונה לו סוס ועבד. וכן לכל אחד ואחד לפי מה שצריך. הראוי לתת לו פת, נותנים לו פת. עיסה, נותנים לו עיסה. מטה, נותנים לו מטה. הראוי ליתן לו פת חמה, חמה. צונן, צונן. להאכילו לתוך פיו, מאכילין. אין לו אשה ובא לישא, משיאין לו. ושוכרים לו בית ומציעים לו מטה וכלי תשמישו, ואחר כך משיאין לו אשה.

הגה: ונראה דכל זה בגבאי צדקה, או רבים ביחד, אבל אין היחיד מחוייב ליתן לעני די מחסורו, אלא מודיע צערו לרבים, ואם אין רבים אצלו יתן היחיד, אם ידו משגת.

How much must one give to a poor person? That which he is lacking. How is this applied? If he’s hungry, feed him. If he needs clothing, clothe him. If he has no furniture, buy him furniture. And even if he’s used to riding around on a horse with a servant, and then he became poor, buy him a horse and servant. And so to each and every person according to what they need. Where’s it’s proper to give baked bread, give baked bread. Where it’s proper to give dough, give dough. A bed, give a bed. Hot bread, give hot bread. Cold, give cold. If he needs to be fed, feed him. If he doesn’t have a wife and is engaged, help him get married. Rent him a house, prepare him a bed and things for the house, and then marry him off.

Rema: All of this is incumbent upon a gabbai tzedaka, or the community, but one person is not obligated to fulfill all of the poor person’s needs. Rather, he [the poor] should make his pain known to the community. If there is no community, he [the donor] should give as much as he can afford.

It’s unclear which conceptual framework the Shulchan Aruch is choosing to work with — that of Rabbeinu Yona or that of the Geonim. The Rema seemingly rules like Rabbeinu Yona, as he writes that one must actively inform the community, in order to enlist their help in shouldering the burden — he’s certainly not arguing that one must hide the embarrassment of the poor person.

What is clear from the way the Shulchan Aruch frames his words, however, is that a prerequisite for the optimal performance of this mitzvah is an intimate knowledge of the poor person. Indeed, his treatment of the individual indicates as much, as in when he says, “if he needs to be fed, feed him.” The Torah is attempting to build a close-knit society here, with each responsible for his kin and close friends, and in the process creates a network of caring individuals who are able to support each another when one of them inevitably stumbles.

A Poor Person’s Responsibilities Towards Himself and Society

Until now, we’ve been discussing the obligations of the individual towards the poor person. There are, however, certain obligations that the poor person bears in terms of raising himself out of poverty. Indeed, as the Gemara[26] writes, there is a certain value in living a modest lifestyle, or certainly not an extravagant one:

ההוא דאתא לקמיה דרבי נחמיה, אמר ליה: במה אתה סועד? א”ל: בבשר שמן ויין ישן. רצונך שתגלגל עמי בעדשים? גלגל עמו בעדשים ומת, אמר: אוי לו לזה שהרגו נחמיה! אדרבה, אוי לו לנחמיה שהרגו לזה מיבעי ליה! אלא, איהו הוא דלא איבעי ליה לפנוקי נפשיה כולי האי.

There was a certain poor man who came to Rav Nechemia [to ask for charity]. He said to him, “What do you eat?” The poor man replied, “fattened meat and old wine.” “Would you like to try more standard fare of lentils?” Rav Nechemia asked him. So he did, and the poor man died. It was said: “Woe is the one who Nechemia killed.” On the contrary, says the Gemara, shouldn’t we say, “Woe is Nechemia who killed someone?” Rather, he [the poor man] shouldn’t have pampered himself to that point.

Even if one does unfortunately come to the point where he is poor, Chazal were very clearly in favor of extreme personal responsibility, even at the expense of optimal mitzvah performance, as Rabbi Akiva says:[27] “One should make his Shabbat like the weekday [and eat only two meals] rather than rely on other people [and take tzedaka for seudah shlishit].” There is a similar statement made by Rav Kehana:[28] “Skin a carcass in the market and take payment, but do not say, ‘I am a great man and this matter is beneath me.’ Thus, the Rambam[29] writes:

לעולם ידחוק אדם עצמו ויתגלגל בצער ואל יצטרך לבריות ואל ישליך עצמו על הצבור, וכן צוו חכמים ואמרו עשה שבתך חול ואל תצטרך לבריות, ואפילו היה חכם ומכובד והעני יעסוק באומנות ואפילו באומנות מנוולת ולא יצטרך לבריות, מוטב לפשוט עור בהמות נבלות ולא יאמר לעם חכם גדול אני כהן אני פרנסוני, ובכך צוו חכמים, גדולי החכמים היו מהם חוטבי עצים ונושאי הקורות ושואבי מים לגנות ועושי הברזל והפחמים ולא שאלו מן הצבור ולא קיבלו מהם כשנתנו להם.

כל מי שאינו צריך ליטול ומרמה את העם ונוטל אינו מת מן הזקנה עד שיצטרך לבריות, והרי הוא בכלל ארור הגבר אשר יבטח באדם, וכל מי שצריך ליטול ואינו יכול לחיות אלא אם כן נוטל כגון זקן או חולה או בעל יסורין ומגיס דעתו ואינו נוטל הרי זה שופך דמים ומתחייב בנפשו ואין לו בצערו אלא חטאות ואשמות, וכל מי שצריך ליטול וציער ודחק את השעה וחיה חיי צער כדי שלא יטריח על הצבור אינו מת מן הזקנה עד שיפרנס אחרים משלו, ועליו ועל כל כיוצא בזה נאמר ברוך הגבר אשר יבטח בה’.

One should always strain oneself and endure hardship and not come to depend on others rather than cast oneself onto the community. Thus the Sages commanded, “Make your Sabbaths into weekdays rather than come to depend on others.” Even if one is wise and revered and becomes poor, he should engage in some kind of craft, even a menial one, rather than come to depend on others. Better to stretch leather from carrion than to say, “I am a great sage,” [or] “I am a priest: Feed me.” Thus have the Sages commanded. Great sages were splitters of wood, raisers of beams, drawers of water for gardens, ironworkers, and blacksmiths rather than ask [for their living] from the community or accept anything when they gave to them.

Anyone who does not need [tzedaka] but deceives people and takes will not reach death in old age without having come to depend upon others [in reality]. For such a one fits the type (Yirmiyahu 17:5): “Cursed is he who trusts in man [and does not heed divine providence].” And anyone who needs to take [tzedaka] and cannot live without it unless he takes, such as an elderly person, a sick person, or one who has many afflictions, but whose mind is full of pride and will not take is like one who sheds blood, is guilty of his own death, and gets nothing for his hardship except sins and guilt. But anyone who needs to take and endures hardship, presses himself, and lives a life of hardship so as not to burden the community will not reach death in old age without being able to sustain others from his wealth. Of him and those like him it is written (Yirmiyahu 17:7), “Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord.”

The Shulchan Aruch[30] cites this Rambam as halacha l’ma’aseh.

The Rambam also writes famously[31] that one who learns Torah and expects to be supported through charity has “profaned the name of God, degraded the Torah, extinguished the light of God’s law, caused damage to himself, and removed himself from the world to come.” The Kesef Mishneh[32] tempers this slightly and writes that one may take money for teaching Torah or for being a dayan; however he does not allow for someone to simply learn all day with no practical application.

It’s clear that there is an ethic of personal responsibility for one’s position in life. This need to ensure that one earns a living independent of others is so important that it supersedes one’s personal honor, and even learning Torah! A welfare society, which removes the onus of responsibility from the individual and places it upon the state, acts to counteract this ethos. Indeed, in such societies, states often times become responsible for many different societal issues that rightfully should be solved at the communal or personal level.

Does Society Have an Obligation of Tzedaka?

The Gemara[33] lists two communal charity organs (already mentioned previously), the tamchui and the kupa. These two bodies provide immediate financial relief, in the short term and the medium term, respectively. The tamchui is roughly akin to a soup kitchen, and provides food on a day to day basis to those who are in need. It is collected each day from the residents of the town and distributed by three gabbaei tzedaka. The kupa is collected from week to week and operated by three gabbaei tzedaka, and provides weekly meals or money for weekly meals for the poor. The Gemara also tells us that the tamchui is for all poor people, regardless of their origin, whereas the kupa is only for the poor of that village.

The Rambam[34] explains this idea in detail:

א: כל עיר שיש בה ישראל חייבין להעמיד מהם גבאי צדקה אנשים ידועים ונאמנים שיהיו מחזירין על העם מערב שבת לערב שבת ולוקחין מכל אחד ואחד מה שהוא ראוי ליתן ודבר הקצוב עליו, והן מחלקין המעות מערב שבת לערב שבת ונותנין לכל עני ועני מזונות המספיקין לשבעה ימים, וזו היא הנקרא קופה.

ב: וכן מעמידין גבאין שלוקחין בכל יום ויום מכל חצר וחצר פת ומיני מאכל או פירות או מעות ממי שמתנדב לפי שעה, ומחלקין את הגבוי לערב בין העניים ונותנין לכל עני ממנו פרנסת יומו, וזהו הנקרא תמחוי.

Any city with Jews is obligated to appoint gabbaei tzedaka. These should be relatively famous individuals, who are trustworthy, who will make a weekly collection. These monies are to be distributed on Erev Shabbat and are to be enough to sustain a poor person from week to week. This what’s known as a kupa.

Similarly, one should appoint gabbaim to collect food or money daily from each household, according to what they are willing to give at that moment. Each evening this sustenance should be distributed among the poor, enough for one day. This is what’s known as a tamchui.

There is a machloket among the Acharonim as to the nature of this obligation. Is it merely a way for an individual to fulfil his obligation of charity, or is it a separate rabbinical decree? The Kiryat Sefer[35] writes that this is indeed a separate rabbinic obligation, in order to ensure that when the need arises, there are funds available. On the other hand, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein writes[36] that there is no seperate rabbinic enactment, and compares this halacha to that of building a wall in a city. Members of a city can force one another to build a wall, but there is clearly no mitzvah to do so. Therefore, says Rav Lichtenstein, these communal charity organs are not a seperate part of the mitzva. If that is the case, we can infer that the kupa and the tamchui are ways of fulfilling one’s original obligation of tzedaka.

One way or another, there are clearly communal charitable organizations that handle the most immediate needs of the community. How does this fit in with our thesis that state oversight of the charitable process is destructive to the Torah’s conception of a charitable society? To understand more fully, we need to understand two fundamental points. The first is that these two funds are only for immediate financial relief, and do not encompass the full scope of the mitzvah of tzedaka. The second is that these funds were not administered by a faceless government office after the poor person filled out some paperwork. Rather, the money was apportioned by gabbaim, trusted officers of the community.

These gabbaim were important to the entire process of the allocation of charitable funds. The Derech Emuna[37] writes that these gabbaim were tasked with interviewing and investigating each and every poor person to determine what his needs were, and to make sure that they were truly deserving. Indeed, he continues and writes that if one cannot ascertain the truthfulness of the gabbaim, he should cease to donate to the public funds and instead give charity privately. He concludes that this process isn’t only to protect the donors. Rather, it is also critical for the purpose of the poor building trust in the gabbai that he is fair in his manner of distribution. Clearly, the element of communal trust was critical here, as the Radbaz[38] writes: “That which [the Rambam] wrote that they have to be well-known and trustworthy: I understand why they have to be trustworthy. Why do they need to be well known? [The answer is] in order that the poor people will know them, and the donors will be embarrased [to reject] them and will donate.”

Rav Melamed summarizes the issue nicely: “According to the accepted practice today, the state is responsible for dealing with poor people. The social workers don’t have extended exposure to the communities in which they’re working. According to the Torah, help for poor people needs to come from gabbaim who are native to and have intimate knowledge of that community, for only they will be able to help the poor people in the most effective manner. If possible, they will find him work, so that he can earn a living with honor. If he’s not able to work in a job that will sustain him, they will try and find him work through which he can take at least a partial share in his sustenance, and thus help him to save face in his own eyes and the eyes of his family.”

Again, we see how the state destroys the community cohesion which is so intrinsic to charitable giving. Not only does it not exist in practice in such an environment, but the underlying values that this type of charitable giving espouses fall by the wayside.

In Conclusion

We have seen through numerous facets of hilchot tzedaka how a state-run welfare system seems to run counter to halacha. The concentric circles of responsibility disappear, as do the communal cohesion and personal accountability that come with a community-based charity program.

In his commentary to the verse[39] enjoining us to join in the unloading of the donkey of our enemy, the Malbim writes:

When he [your enemy] is working with you, then you are obligated to help him. However, if he sits on the side and says ‘you have a mitzvah to help me’ so do it yourself, you are no longer obligated. From here we can answer those few poor people of our time who throw themselves on the community and don’t want to work, even if they’re capable, and complain that they’re not receiving their full due. For God did not command that we help him unless he is doing all that he can to sustain himself and is not succeeding, at which point we are commanded to help and support him, and to provide him with what he is lacking.

Tzedaka is not a “get out of jail free” card that one can play and get instant support. Instead, one must employ extreme responsibility for oneself, and only then, when all options are exhausted, may one take charity. The goal of the Torah is to make poverty a transient state, not a permanent one that God-forbid drags down multiple generations of people.

We will conclude with the words of Rav Melamed: “This is the most moral course of action, for the free will and responsibility of each individual is a foundational principle of man’s moral and ethical existence in this world. If he chooses good – he will merit a good life and the world to come, and if he chooses evil – he will pay the price in this world and the next. And so is the proper attitude towards money and property. If he chooses to be lazy – he will be poor, and if he is diligent – he will reap the rewards.”

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welfare_state

[2] https://revivim.yhb.org.il/2015/01/08/מדינת-רווחה-על-פי-התורה/

[3] Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 195

[4] Matnot Aniyim 7:1

[5] Y.D. 247

[6] Y.D. 247

[7] Ketubot 50a and Rashi

[8] Devarim, Re’eh 116

[9] Y.D. 251:3

[10] Ibid.

[11] 8:7-8

[12] Ketubot 67b-68a

[13] Ketubot 68a, s.v. “Here before he came to be supported”

[14] Ibid., s.v. “Here before he came to be supported”

[15] Ritva, Ketubot 68a

[16] Ketubot 68a

[17] Ketubot 29b in the Rif’s pagination

[18] Mishneh Torah, Matnot Aniyim 9:14

[19] Y.D. 253

[20] Y.D. 253:1

[21] Ketubot 67b

[22] Ketubot 67b

[23] Quoted in Shita Mekubetzet to Ketubot 67b

[24] Ibid.

[25] Y.D. 250:1

[26] Ketubot 67b

[27] Shabbat 118a

[28] Bava Batra 110a

[29] Matnot Aniyim 10:18-19

[30] Y.D. 255:1-2

[31] Hilchot Talmud Torah ch.3

[32] Loc. cit.

[33] Bava Batra 8b

[34] Matnot Aniyim 9:1-2

[35] Matnot Aniyim, ch.9

[36] https://etzion.org.il/he/ האם-יש-חובה-ציבורית-לגמילות-חסדים

[37] Matnot Aniyim 9:5, 35

[38] Matnot Aniyim 9:1

[39] Shemot 23:5

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