Helping the Community Poor:
Four Different Ways

1. The first thing that we find in most Jewish communities, even the poorer ones, is an attempt to create institutions for dealing with some of the harsher community problems. One particular problem that was prevalent throughout the Jewish world was the problem of orphans, whose numbers tended to be particularly high in times and places in which Jewish communities were affected by violence from the outside world. Jewish communities would develop mechanisms for taking care of these children. Only in the last centuries do we find actual orphanages for groups of orphans under community auspices, but before that we find orphans being cared for within the community. Their education would be guaranteed by the community and they would invariably be brought up, with community support if necessary, within a family framework.

Another example of an institution that would be maintained by the community is some kind of communal kitchen for the hungry and the poor, which we find in different forms in many communities. Many communities would also have a communal fund for helping the poor. Connected with this is the idea of the community’s providing travelers and homeless wanderers with a place for the night. Very often it would be known that such people were welcome to stay overnight in the study house, and the community officials would make sure that it was well warmed on winter nights.

2. A second type of concern that we find within the traditional communities relates to the actions of individuals or groups of people who would volunteer for various duties. Thus a group might take on itself the duty of Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick and ensuring their comfort and welfare. Another group might take upon itself the duty of helping poor girls raise a dowry that would enable them to find a prospective husband (hachnasat kalah). In many communities, the most prestigious voluntary association was the group that assisted with burial and with the tending of dead bodies, usually called the Chevrah Kedushah or holy society. On the whole, such groups would work within the community, but would not be the formal responsibility of the community. However, they would often overlap with the functions of the official community. For example, a group might help with orphans within the community even if the community took primary responsibility for the orphans’ welfare.

The Jewish Community in Karlsruhe (Germany) contributed monthly to the welfare of the widows

3. A third way in which many communities assisted the poor and the indigent was by developing a progressive tax structure that would be designed to help and even to exempt from payment the poorer elements in the community. This was very significant since, in many places, the external authorities would impose a sum on the community based on a poll tax, whereby the community was meant to pay an equal sum for each person in the community. In such cases, the community tended to replace this external tax with a progressive internal tax that got the richer elements of the community to pay a larger proportional share of the sum.

4. A final way in which poorer individuals would benefit within the community was simply by the help that they would get from the more fortunate. Poor residents frequently received gifts of food from their neighbors. We can see a telling example of this by examining the treatment of beggars within the traditional community. Besides getting aid from the communal relief fund, as they often did, the beggars would request help from individual householders and shopkeepers. In many places the request was more in the nature of a demand for assistance. The amount of folklore surrounding the figure of the impudent beggar who demands his (or more rarely, her) rights is substantial. This attitude would frequently elicit a positive response on the part of the potential giver. Beggars would be invited to the community weddings and whole tables would be put aside for them. Reflections of this reality within Ashkenazi society are well shown in the famous Yiddish play The Dybbuk, by Ansky, in which the beggars are given honored roles at the wedding of the bride. Indeed, beggars are generally seen as central figures in the traditional society of Eastern Europe.

Another reflection of the central role that beggars played within the traditional Jewish community can be found in the Mishnah which was completed and made public at the beginning of the third century C.E. This was clearly a seminal text that the early rabbis had been working on for several generations in their attempt to define the new norms that would define normative Jewish behavior in the post-Second Temple era. Enormous care had been put into the precise formulations.

Seen from this point of view, it is fascinating to see how the subject of Shabbat observance was introduced. The section on Shabbat opens the second ‘order’ of the Mishnah, Seder Mo’ed, which deals with observance of holy days and festivals. Here is the opening of the first Mishnah:

There are two…kinds of [carrying a burden] on the Shabbat…If a poor man stood outside and the householder inside and the poor man stretched his hand inside and put something into the hand of the householder, or took something from it and brought it out, the poor man is guilty [of breaking the Shabbat] and the householder is not guilty. If the householder stretched his hand outside and put something into the poor man’s hand or took something from it and brought it in, the householder is guilty and the poor man is not guilty…

The very first question discussed in relation to Shabbat observance uses the example of a beggar who comes to the door of a house on Shabbat and has some kind of an interaction with the occupant. In the course of this interaction, something changes hands and the question is asked as to who is responsible for the breaking of Shabbat by transferring an object from one place to another, the beggar or the occupant of the house. The halachic detail is not what we mean to stress here. What is remarkable is the fact that the very first example on the central subject of Shabbat uses the figure of the beggar at the door, who is clearly receiving something from the occupant of the house. It was obviously an occurrence common enough to warrant its place in the opening mishnah. In other words, the beggars of that time were recognizable figures in the community and it was assumed that poor people asking for help would not be turned away empty-handed.

These four different mechanisms were operating in the traditional community to ensure that the Biblical principles of aiding the needy, originally envisaged for an agricultural society were transmitted to all Jews, in all communal situations, throughout time. We must now ask the question: how have these ideas fared in the modern Jewish community?

The answer, it has to be said, is mixed. The more closed communities of the ‘two feet in’ variety have transmitted these values well. Even today, in many halachic communities, there will be a long list of voluntary associations each of whom provides an address to which people in the community can turn in case of need. A casual glance through the yellow pages of the Israeli haredi city of B’nei B’rak, for example, will reveal an enormous array of free services to those in need. There is a staggering number of voluntary organizations providing free services of nearly every conceivable kind to those who find themselves in even occasional need.

In non-Halachic communities, on the other hand, the practical translation of the value of giving as a mitzvah has largely been lost. What we are left with is the possibility of charity, a voluntary act that the individual can do or not, according to conscience and circumstance.

We find a wonderful illustration of this in the Isaac Leib Peretz story Poor Boy, written in the late nineteenth century and set in the great community of Warsaw. The story, told from the perspective of a modern Jew who sits on the charity committee of a Jewish soup kitchen, records a series of encounters that he experiences with a starving child. The eyes of the child so prick his conscience that, on several separate occasions, he gives him enough money to sleep in some kind of a hostel for the night. However, he convinces himself that it is wrong to give the child more money through a series of rationalizations all of which are aimed at saving both his money and his conscience. In the end he realizes that the whole exercise is merely a pretence and he ends the story by admitting to himself that, if he were still religiously observant, he would have acted differently and continued to give rather than indulging in intellectual acrobatics to save himself some money. In the last sentence he compares himself unfavorably with his (presumably observant) grandfather and quotes the saying that secular Jews live with heartache and die unconsoled. In other words, they torture themselves over things like this and then are likely to act in the wrong way. This represents a strong indictment of the modern, secularized Jews active in the Jewish community to which Peretz belonged.

Peretz wrote a more famous story during the same period, in 1894. Bontshe Shvayg, or Bontshe the Silent, provides an even stronger condemnation of the contemporary community. Although the story, surrealistically set in heaven with considerable humor, actually takes place after the death of its protagonist, its focus is the deeply miserable life that the dead man had lived. From the first sentence we are made aware of the fact that his life was a total waste and that nobody took any notice of him. Any social welfare mechanisms that were active in his community at the time failed completely in the case of Bontshe, a man who demanded nothing of anyone and received no help for his miserable state.

At the end of the story, when his case has been reviewed in the heavenly court and he is told that he can have anything that he wants in the whole of heaven as compensation for the way that the world has failed him, all he requests is a roll and butter every morning. When they hear this, we are told, the whole heavenly court hangs its head in shame, realizing how easy it would have been to have provided this simple man with a happy life. The only one who does not hang his head in shame is the court prosecutor, who laughs instead, perhaps suggesting that his harsh opinion of mankind has been totally justified. In these two stories, Peretz clearly slams the contemporary community and its institutions, of which he was a part, for its failure to live up to the standards that Jews have traditionally expected of themselves.

When we evaluate contemporary Jewish communities we can say that, in general, despite changes in motivation and attitude, many modern Jews who are involved with Jewish community in one way or other, have by no means abandoned the practice of giving. The tradition of generosity to causes within and without the Jewish community has survived to a large extent. Jews on are generally known as good donors, and community causes - among other things - tend to benefit from their generosity. Let us now ask the students to think about the value of helping less fortunate members of society and evaluate how this is done in their own community.


Examining Caring

The aim of this activity is to raise the question of social welfare within the traditional community, and to examine the reality within the students’ current community.

 What do I Care? Isaac Leib Peretz as Prosecutor

The aim of this activity is to examine issues of moral behavior and values of caring for others, and to reflect on these values in the students themselves.

Dividing Resources

The aim of this activity is to integrate the material that the students have learned about their own community, and push them to make practical decisions regarding the needs of the community.




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29 Nov 2006 / 8 Kislev 5767 0