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The Needy In Jewish Tradition

Dennis Bratcher

An edited version of this article has appeared in Illustrated Bible Life

Jewish laws and traditions concerning treatment of the poor, widows, orphans, travelers, and others in need, grew directly from biblical commands. The Bible repeatedly expresses the obligation to help those who, for whatever reason, could not help themselves.

Some biblical injunctions no doubt grew out of commonly accepted cultural values. For example, the laws requiring hospitality to travelers ("strangers") reflect the harsh desert environment of the Near East. Even modern Arabs place great significance on the proper treatment of guests (see Travelers and Strangers).

For the Israelites and later for Jews (see note) even these customs had a strong ethical and moral base. Jewish traditions interpreted and applied the biblical laws concerning the poor and needy. Both arose from a profound understanding of God as a God of compassion and mercy. "For the Lord your God is . . . the awesome God who does not show partiality . . . . He brings about justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the stranger by giving him food and clothing. Therefore, show your love for the stranger" (Deut. 10:17-19).

So, the Israelites were to care for the traveler or alien in the land because they had once been "strangers in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34). They were to promote justice for the needy because "I, the Lord, love justice" (Isa. 61:8; Psa. 146:7). They were to help those who could not sustain themselves because God "supports the orphan and the widow" (Psa. 146:9).

Jews took the biblical commands seriously. From the early period in the centuries before the Christian era down to the present, the responsibility to help the poor and needy has been central to Judaism. Simeon the Just, High Priest at the time of Alexander the Great (c. 325 BC), clearly defined the principle. He identified acts of compassion as one of three distinguishing characteristics of being Jewish (with the study of Torah and temple worship). To deny this responsibility was to deny Judaism.

The early rabbis studied the Biblical traditions carefully. Their goal was to apply the biblical mandates to all facets of daily life. They interpreted exactly how the biblical commands should be put into practice in the life of the community. From this rabbinic study emerged a variety of activities aimed at fulfilling the biblical commands. Specific practices changed through the centuries and varied with cultures. Still, the basic commitment to helping others remained a central feature of Judaism.

By New Testament times Jews already had a specific term for these deeds. The whole range of compassionate activities toward others was called gemilut chasidim ("the bestowal of loving kindness" or "acts of compassion").

A major aspect of gemilut chasidim was charity and almsgiving for the poor. The rabbis described such charity as tsedakah ("righteousness" or "justice"). Rabbi Eleazar interpreted Proverbs 21:3 ("To do righteousness [tsedakah] and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.") to mean that charity for the needy was more important than sacrifices offered in the temple (note Isa. 1:10-17).

In describing donations to the needy as tsedakah the rabbis convey that providing for the poor is not a favor granted by the giver. The needy have a God-given right to aid and the giver has an obligation to God to help. Jews call such an obligation a mitsvah ("command"). The rabbis held that as faithful worshippers of God Jews should seek opportunities to perform mitsvot (plural of mitsvah). So, acts of compassion were not a burden for the Jew. They were simply part of being God's people in God's world and therefore should be done with joy.

The attitude behind charity for the needy was that all possessions, lands, and goods ultimately belonged to God. A rabbinic story told about a Jewish sage emphasizes this view. A beggar came to the sage expecting food. The sage asked him what he usually ate. The poor man replied, "Fatted chicken and aged wine." The sage chided the beggar for expecting so much and thus taxing the resources of the community. The man responded, "Do I eat what is theirs? I eat what is God's."

Poverty was widespread in the early centuries of Judaism. Jews sometimes viewed it as an unalterable condition of human existence. They realized the suffering that poverty could produce. One rabbi commented that poverty is the worst of all sufferings in the world. Another said, "Poverty in a man's house is worse than fifty plagues."

Still, they often viewed poverty as having positive value. It forced the poor to depend on God: "A man becomes Godfearing only through poverty." And it provided those who had plenty the opportunity to serve God through generosity to their fellowmen. Wealth was not necessarily bad. The purpose of wealth, according to early rabbis, was to provide the opportunity to alleviate the suffering of those in need.

Jewish teachers developed extensive guidelines concerning charitable giving. Every member of the community was required to give to the needy. Even the poor were expected to help those less fortunate than themselves. Sometimes people who refused to give were flogged publicly. A portion of their property could even be seized and donated to charity. In effect, this eventually became a "tax" upon Jews for the support of public welfare. Normally, Jews gave at least a tenth of their wealth to charity. Any less betrayed a stingy person. No more than a fifth of one's resources could be given, however, lest that person become poor himself and need assistance.

Jews normally confined financial aid to other Jews. In the interest of peace and good relations it could be given to non-Jews as well. Women received help before men, relatives before strangers, and members of the local community before outsiders. A person could receive temporary help even if they owned property. They were not required to sell land or possessions to secure food. Also, a traveler stranded without support could receive assistance even if he had money at home. The poor could be maintained but could not become richer by receiving assistance. The rabbis encouraged those receiving aid to become self supporting: "Even a wise and honored man should do menial work rather than take charity."

There is a story told of Rabbi Hillel who aided a man who had once been rich. Hillel provided him with a horse and a runner to go before him, because the man was accustomed to such things and so had "need" of them. When Hillel could not afford to hire a runner, he did so himself.

This sensitivity to the feelings of the poor is an important aspect of gemilut chasidim. Care was to be taken not to bring embarrassment or shame to the recipient. Maimonides, an early Jewish scholar, listed eight ways of giving, each progressively more commendable: 1) giving sadly; 2) giving less than needed, but gladly; 3) giving after being asked; 4) giving without being asked; 5) giving without knowing who the recipient is; 6) giving without the recipient knowing who gave; 7) giving with neither the recipient or giver knowing who the other is; 8) helping the poor establish their independence by loan, hiring them to work, or teaching them a trade.

Rabbinic traditions even permitted deceiving a poor person who was too proud to receive charity into thinking the aid was a loan. The "loan" would be forgiven after the needy person had accepted it. Rabbi Yannai maintained that it was better not to give to someone at all than to give to them in public and thus bring attention to their plight. However, there are also appeals to the poor not to be ashamed to accept the aid of others if they are truly in need.

Besides direct financial help by individuals, a variety of other aids to the needy developed, much of it undertaken by the community. Rural communities practiced the biblical commands to leave for the needy the corners of the field, the gleanings of the grain, and the forgotten produce (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-21). Each community established communal charity funds for the relief of the needy. Food and clothing were also available in most Jewish communities. Communal "soup kitchens" were open to anyone who did not have enough to eat two meals a day. Community collections provided a dowry and trousseau for brides who were orphans or whose family was poor. In later centuries Jewish relief societies called chevra assumed many of these communal obligations.

The idea of gemilut chasidim extended beyond just providing charity to the disadvantaged to include personal service. This would include honoring one's parents, bringing peace between people, hospitality shown to travelers, inviting the hungry to share family meals, visiting the sick and elderly, attending the dead to burial, and rejoicing at the marriage of any bride.

Some rabbis even viewed these aspects of compassion as more virtuous than simply giving money or goods. Charity could be done only with one's possessions while true compassion required the giving of oneself. Charity could be given only to the poor while compassion could be extended to anyone. Charity could only be done to the living while compassion could extend to the dead as well.

The idea that "acts of compassion" are a mitsvah, a responsibility of being God's people in the world, is still very much a part of Modern Judaism. A large network of relief societies meets a variety of needs for both Jews and non-Jews ("Gentiles"). These range from large research hospitals, to educational programs for schools and universities, to aid given to the poor.

A small example of the attitude of gemilut chadisim within Judaism occurs each year in Oklahoma City. Each Christmas day, Jews from a local synagogue take the place of Christian workers in Travelers' Aid booths at the airport so that Christians can spend Christmas with their families.


The term 'Jew' is not really appropriate until after the emergence of normative Judaism about the time of Ezra (c.450 BC; Esther 2:5). From the time of the exodus until the post-exilic era (c. 1200-500 BC) the people were called Israelites ("sons of Israel"; Exod. 1:7) or the older and more ethnic Hebrew (Gen. 14:13).  See Hebrews, Arameans, and Israelites)

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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