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The Responsibilities of the Recipient of Charity, Part 1

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            One of the fundamental problems troubling those involved in providing welfare services, whether as individuals or as part of the public system, is the issue of the recipient’s participation in and attitude towards the assistance extended to him.  There is, of course, no disagreement that it is preferable to involve the recipient in the process of and responsibility for providing for his own needs.  In countless cases, however, the recipient appears not to be working as hard as he can, preferring rather to cast the burden upon others.  In such circumstances, a piercing question arises: To what degree and by what means should we press for the increased participation of the recipient of aid, and to what extent is it possible to condition the extension of assistance on his readiness to share the burden? Regarding this point, opinions differ, and Judaism’s position on the matter must be clarified.


            The search for an answer will initially be directed, of course, to the halakhic sources, but it will be quickly discovered – and this fact in itself demands investigation – that the fundamental sources in which an answer might be found, whether in the writings of Chazal or in the works of the poskim, are exceedingly meager.  There are, indeed, limitations that determine who is fit to receive charity.  The Mishna in Pe’a states: “One who has two hundred zuz must not take gleanings, forgotten-produce, field-corner produce, or poor man’s tithe.”[1] This standard, which applies to agricultural gifts to the poor, was codified as law with respect to charity as well, and was translated into buying power by several Rishonim: “Some [authorities] say that these standards applied only in their [Chazal’s] day, but today one may take [charity] as long as one does not have capital from which to support oneself and one’s household from the profits thereof; and this is a well-reasoned position.”[2]   This limitation does not, however, resolve our difficulty.  First of all, it is restricted to tzedaka (charity) – that is to say, monetary assistance – and does not relate to assistance falling into the category of gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness) that must be extended to “both the poor and the rich.”[3] Second, while it provides a test of means that excludes the “rich” from receiving charity, it does not offer any guidelines on how to relate to one who qualifies for charity because he is poor.[4]


            More directly related to our issue is a Tannaitic dispute that appears to reflect different attitudes towards the matter at hand:

Our Rabbis taught: “Lend” (Devarim 15:8) – this [refers to someone] who has nothing and does not wish to be supported [from charity], to whom we give [money] as a loan, and afterwards we give [it] to him as a gift.  “Surely lend him” (ibid.) – this [refers to someone] who has [resources of his own] but does not wish to support himself [from them], to whom we give [money] as a gift, and afterwards we collect [it] from him after his death.  [These are] the words of Rabbi Yehuda. 

But the Sages say: [If] he has [resources of his own] but does not wish to support himself [from them], we are not bound to [help] him.  How, then, do I explain “surely lend him”? The Torah spoke in the language of people [and we cannot infer anything from this phrase].[5]

We see that according to Rabbi Yehuda a person who has means that he does not wish to exploit is still defined as a needy person who must be treated and granted aid – and this seems to derive from the mitzva of tzedaka, not only from gemilut chasadim – though he does not acquire the charity money permanently.  His situation is similar to that of a person who is stuck on the road without any money, about whom Rabbi Eliezer ruled that “if a property-holder was traveling from place to place and in need of taking gleanings, forgotten-produce, field-corner produce, or poor man’s tithe, he may take them, but when he returns home he must repay them.”[6] According to the Sages, however, the fact that a person “has resources of his own” in and of itself exempts others from all responsibility to take care of his needs – at least, in the framework of the mitzva of gifts for the poor. 


Despite the striking difference in attitude reflected in this dispute, it does not suffice to resolve our question, for we must define the term “someone who has resources of his own.” Rashi explains: “[This means] someone who has resources of his own, but does not want to support himself from his own resources, but rather from charity, and he afflicts himself with hunger.”[7] Rambam sharpens the point: “A wealthy person who starves himself, and is miserly about his assets, not to eat or drink from them – we do not concern ourselves with him.”[8] This formulation was codified as law in the Shulchan Arukh.[9] We appear to be dealing with a miser who prefers to save and starve – or to take from charity – rather than use the resources already in his possession.  Despite all the criticism that may be leveled against a passive person who takes no steps to help himself, he certainly cannot be compared to a person of means who mortifies himself.  Even one who maintains that the latter is responsible for his lot[10] can require the extension of assistance to the former.


            A clearer source relates to a mitzva that involves not tzedaka but gemilut chasadim – perika and te’ina (“unloading and loading,” the positive commandment to help another person unload an animal that has fallen under its load, or to help the master reload the animal that has fallen): “[If the owner] went and sat down and said: ‘Since the commandment is upon you, if it is your wish to unload, unload,’ he is exempt, as it is said: ‘With him’ (Shemot 23:5).”[11] This case parallels our question; but the talmudic passage is unclear as to whether this limitation is unique to the mitzva of perika and te’ina, based on the Scriptural decree “with him,” or whether it embodies a principle that is valid regarding the provision of assistance in general.


            In his commentary to the Torah, Keli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntshitz adopted the second position.  The verse reads, “If you see the donkey of him that hates you lying under its burden, and would forbear to unload it (ve-chadalta me-azov lo), you shall surely unload it with him” (Shemot 23:5).  As opposed to Rashi, Keli Yakar understands that the word ve-chadalta grants an allowance not to offer assistance:


Therefore it says “and would forbear to unload it,” because the word “lo” does not mean “with him,” and [therefore we infer that] you are permitted to forbear helping him when he refuses to join you in the task.  This is an answer to some of the poor among our people who cast themselves on the community and refuse to do any work, even if they are able to engage in certain work or in some other endeavor that will bring food to the table, and they complain if they are not given whatever they are lacking.  For God did not command this, but rather, “You shall surely unload it with him,” and “you shall surely help him to lift them up again” (Devarim 22:4).  For the needy person must do whatever is in his power to do, and if, despite all his efforts, he fails to earn a living, then every man in Israel is obligated to support and strengthen him, and to provide him with whatever he is lacking, and unload even a hundred times.[12]


            As opposed to Keli Yakar’s certainty about this issue, we find that one of the Rishonim, the Meiri, was in doubt about the matter.  In the course of a discussion regarding a talmudic discussion in Kiddushin, he mentions the two possibilities raised above, without deciding between them.  The Gemara there states that if a man says to a woman, “Be betrothed to me with this loaf of bread,” and she tells him to give it to a dog, she is betrothed to him only if the dog is hers, for only then is she regarded as having derived benefit from the dog’s eating.  In the continuation, the Gemara raises the following question, which it leaves unresolved: “Rav Mari asked: What if the dog was pursuing her? [Do we say that] in return for the benefit of saving herself from it she resolves and cedes herself to him; or perhaps she can say to him, ‘By Torah law you were indeed bound to save me’?”[13] On this, the Meiri comments:


If a dog was pursuing her in order to bite her, the validity of her betrothal is in doubt.  For perhaps owing to his saving her, she resolved and ceded herself to him; or perhaps, since he too is bound to act in that manner, for the Torah states: “Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:16), she does not resolve to cede herself. 

Now this applies when she agrees to return the value of the loaf of bread, for if not, he is not obligated to save her, for one is even forbidden to save himself with another person’s money.  But there are some who say that while he himself is forbidden to save himself with another person’s money when the owner of that money is not there, nevertheless whenever the owner of the money is present, he is obligated to save [the person in distress] even on condition that he will not recover from him what he spends on saving him, and he cannot collect that sum from him in court.  This is what [the Sages] said regarding the mitzva of unloading: “[If the owner] went and sat down and said: ‘Since the commandment is upon you, if it is your wish to unload, unload,’ he is exempt, as it is said: ‘With him.’” The reason is that it says “with him,” but without that [stipulation] he is obligated. 

And if you propose to say that even where it does not state “with him,” the same law applies – [I would answer that in the case of unloading an animal one is exempt from helping if the owner refuses to participate] because the injured party can help him, and if he refuses to help, others do not have a greater obligation to save his money than he does.  Furthermore, there we are only dealing with the rescue of money, but here where we are dealing with the rescue of the person himself, and that person is unable to save himself, [the onlooker] is obligated to rescue him even if it causes him a [financial] loss, and he cannot collect from him what he expended on his rescue.[14]


            Meiri’s words are instructive in and of themselves, but in light of the silence of the rest of the Rishonim and poskim, they do not negate the fact that our problem has not been exhaustively discussed in the primary halakhic sources.  This silence has left us room to investigate the matter.  Specifically, it has left room for a discussion which is based on the halakhic foundations of gemilut chasadim, and which by its very nature will bring under consideration the moral and ethical dimension of the issue.  It is precisely this dimension which is problematic, for our problem is rooted in a clash of values. 


On the one hand, there is the mitzva of gemilut chasadim, with all the halakhic and social obligations that it involves, which demand of the benefactor maximal assistance.  On the other hand, there is a demand, perhaps no less legitimate, to minimize the aid and to share the burden.  This demand has at least three components – one related to the limitations of the benefactor, and two connected to the welfare of the recipient. 


First of all, since we are talking about dividing up limited resources, generosity toward one person always comes at the expense of his fellow.  This consideration is true about every act of benevolence, but it is especially valid with respect to a public system built on the money and efforts of others upon whom are made coercive demands.  While its full political weight is felt in trying times, whether because of real political and economic limitations or against the background of a taxpayers’ revolt, it is valid at all times as a moral argument.[15]


Second, unqualified giving, even were it possible in a practical and budgetary sense, is liable to clash with the fundamental objective of any relief plan: the rehabilitation of the recipient to the point that he is capable of standing on his own two feet, emotionally and functionally.  If Rambam placed at the top of the scale of charity “a person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid,”[16] then it is clear that the highest goal in helping a person who has already fallen low is the restoration of his independence.  It is precisely abundant aid that is liable to block the attainment of this goal, by intensifying the reality and the feeling of dependence to the point of degeneration and even paralysis of the emotional strengths that are necessary for the rehabilitation process. 


Lastly, the participation of the recipient is necessary for his moral benefit, no less than for his psychological benefit.  One need not adopt the views of Emerson or Carlyle in order to understand that the ability to assume responsibility is a measure not only of a person’s emotional health, but also of his spiritual level.  Therefore, whenever this ability is impaired by unconditional giving – or by giving to which only minimal conditions are attached – there exists an additional dimension to the clash of values that stands at the center of our problem.


            This clash necessitates a dual approach, in the spirit of the words of Napoleon – that a person should pray as if everything depended upon God and fight as if everything depended upon him.  When relating to the needy person, one ought to encourage personal effort and stimulate self-confidence.  This point has a universal moral foundation, but it draws special strength from the enormous emphasis that Judaism places on free will.  The entire halakhic system is based on one central fact – “Free will is bestowed on every human being.  If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so.  If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so.  And thus it is written in the Torah: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil’ (Bereishit 3:22) – which means that the human species had become unique in the world, there being no other species like it in the following respect, namely, that man, of himself and by exercise of his own intelligence and reason, knows what is good and what is evil, and there is none who can prevent him from doing that which is good or that which is evil”[17] – and upon the conclusion that may be drawn from it: “Since every human being, as we have explained, has free will, a man should strive to repent, make verbal expression of his sins, and renounce them, so that he may die penitent and thus be worthy of life in the World-to-Come.”[18] What is true about penitence on the spiritual level is true about rehabilitation on the emotional and physical level.  Since every man has free will, he must strive to rehabilitate himself and confront his problems and overcome his difficulties so that he may live and merit life in this world.  The Torah asserts that, factually, a person is capable; and therefore, morally, he is obligated.  Pouvoir oblige.  The recognition of free will is a basic component in the Torah’s outlook regarding the provision of support in general, and it is especially important in assessing the recipient’s contribution to his own rehabilitation.  His personal responsibility stands at the center of Judaism’s ethics and psychological understanding, and its practical expression in treating the needy is strengthening the feeling and reality of his personal strength.


            As for our problem, this emphasis does not exhaust itself in encouragement.  It seems to me that it expresses itself in criticism as well.  The final Mishna in tractate Pe’a states: “And anyone who is not in need of taking and does take will not die before he will be dependent on others.”[19] The Mishna does not clarify – nor does the Gemara here or anywhere else – to whom it refers.  But it is difficult to assume that it is talking about someone who has two hundred zuz (or fifty with which he conducts business), but nevertheless takes charity.  Such a person is a real thief.  It may be suggested that we are dealing here with a person who does not have two hundred zuz, but is capable of earning such a sum.  Formally, such a person is entitled to accept gifts for the poor, because he is still defined as a pauper.  But since he refuses to develop his abilities, Chazal do not spare him their criticism.  Indeed, when Rambam codifies the Mishna’s ruling, he adds a source, but ignores the element of theft: “He who, having no need of alms, obtains alms by deception will, ere he die of old age, fall into a dependency that is real.  Such a person comes under the characterization: ‘Cursed is the man that trusts in man’ (Yirmiyahu 17:5).”[20] It is not clear whether the evil lies in his lack of trust in God and his reliance on man – which belongs, of course, to the realm of the relations between man and God – or in the unnecessary exploitation of people through their deception.  In any event, we are certainly not dealing here with real thievery, and it is reasonable to assume that the reference is to someone who is capable of sharing the burden, but renounces his responsibility.


            When relating to the benefactor, the situation is reversed.  His readiness and obligation to extend assistance to another person is in great measure a function of that other person’s weakness.  The stronger the recipient, the more the inclination to help him dissipates.  Here, then, is the essence of our question; and it divides into two.  First of all, does there exist, fundamentally, an obligation to offer charity and acts of kindness to a person who is capable of overcoming his difficulties, but for some reason gives up? Second, if indeed such an obligation exists, what factors determine the circumstances in which it applies?


            The answer to the first question is connected to the roots of the obligation of gemilut chasadim.  This mitzva has two different but complementary sources.  The first is the foundation of interpersonal mitzvot, the great principle of Rabbi Akiva: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). This fact should be understandable by itself, but in any event, Rambam explained it:


The following positive commands were ordained by the Rabbis: visiting the sick, comforting the mourners, joining a funeral procession, dowering a bride, escorting departing guests, performing for the dead the last tender offices, acting as a pallbearer, going before the bier, making lamentation [for the dead], digging a grave and burying the body, causing the bride and the bridegroom to rejoice, providing them with all their needs [for the wedding].  These constitute deeds of kindness performed in person and for which no fixed measure is prescribed.  Although all these commands are only on rabbinical authority, they are implied in the precept: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” that is: what you would have others do to you, do to him who is your brother in the Law and in the performance of the commandments.[21]


The second source is one of the focal aspects of mitzvot between man and God: “You shall walk in His ways” (Devarim 28:9).  Some of the actions included in Rambam’s list under the heading of “loving your neighbor” are characterized by the Gemara in Sota as part of the obligation of imitatio Dei, imitating God:


Rav Chama son of Rav Chanina said: What means the text: “You shall walk after the Lord your God” (Devarim 13:5)? Is it possible for a human being to walk after the Shekhina; for has it not been said: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire” (ibid. 4:24)? But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He.  As He clothes the naked, for it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them” (Bereishit 3:21), so do you also clothe the naked.  The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, for it is written: “And the Lord appeared unto him by the oaks of Mamre” (ibid. 18:1), so do you also visit the sick.  The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, for it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Avraham, that God blessed Yitzchak his son” (ibid.  25:11), so do you also comfort mourners.  The Holy One, blessed be He, buried the dead, for it is written: “And He buried him in the valley” (Devarim 34:6), so do you also bury the dead.[22]


On the practical level, the two sources of obligation are generally congruent, but from a theoretical perspective, they are very different; and with respect to our question, it seems to me that a distinction should be drawn between them.  Based on “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” it is unreasonable to obligate a person to do for his neighbor that which he would not make the effort to do for himself.  The obligation towards his neighbor and his neighbor’s right to receive acts of kindness seem to be conditioned on his neighbor’s readiness to do his share.  However, the obligation to imitate God does not depend upon any other factor, for God’s kindness is unconditional.  There is indeed a saying that “God helps those who help themselves,” which implies that He does not help those who don’t help themselves; and whole generations of people who ignored the unfortunate, and even abused them, soothed their consciences with this idea.  This, however, is not the Jewish outlook.


We will continue with this article next week.


Translated by David Strauss.  This article originally appeared in Hebrew as “Sa’od Tis’od Immo – Hishtatfut ha-Mekabbel be-Gemilut Chasadim,” in Sefer ha-Zikkaron le-Avraham Spiegelman (Jerusalem, 1979).

[1]     Pe’a 8:8.

[2]     Yoreh De’a 253:62.  The Mishna cites the measure of two hundred zuz with respect to agricultural gifts for the poor, but not with respect to charity.  Logically, there are grounds to distinguish.  Gifts for the poor are in limited supply, and so it is necessary to establish priority regarding eligibility.  This is not the case regarding charity, which is not limited, in the sense that one can give twice.  The Rishonim discuss this point; see Or Zarua, Hilkhot Tzedaka, sec. 14.  This measure, however, has been codified as law regarding tzedaka.

       It should be noted that the measure mentioned here, which is based on the assumption that the needy person will live on his earnings and not eat away at his capital, seems to be exceedingly far-reaching when applied to modern economic reality.  A person with an average sized family (4-5 people) in the United States, who receives a 10% return on his investments (a very good rate), would be considered a pauper who is entitled to receive charity, according to this definition, even if he has capital approaching $150,000! [Ed. note: This was written in 1979, and the figure would now have to be increased severalfold.]  This seems to be very novel, and the matter must be examined in light of the Tur’s comment (YD 253), “It is all in accordance with the time and the place.”

[3]     Sukka 49b.

[4]     It seems to me that regarding other laws – e.g., arakhin or a korban oleh ve-yored – a person without any money, but capable of going out to work, should be regarded as a poor person; his liability should be evaluated in terms of his present situation.  Our discussion here relates to the realms of charity and chesed (loving-kindness), regarding which the determining factor is not the poverty in and of itself, but the distress that is suffered.  This point requires further examination. 

[5]     Ketuvot 67b.

[6]     Pe’a 5:4.

[7]     Ketuvot 67b, s.v. yesh lo.

[8]     Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim 7:9.

[9]     YD 253:10.

[10]    A similar idea is found in Rambam regarding the restoration of lost property: “If one willfully causes his property to become lost, we do not concern ourselves with him.  How so? If one leaves his cow untied in a shed that has no door and goes away… although a spectator may not take the property for himself, he is not obligated to return it.  For Scripture states: ‘Which he has lost’ (Devarim 22:3), excluding cases where one willfully causes property to become lost” (Hilkhot Gezela va-Aveda 11:11).  It is, of course, possible to distinguish between one who refrains from earning a living and one who is negligent about his property.

[11]    Bava Metzia 32a.

[12]    Keli Yakar, Shemot 23:5.

[13]    Kiddushin 8b.

[14]    Beit Ha-Bechira, ad loc., s.v. haya kelev.  Meiri mentions two distinctions connected to separate realms: 1) regarding the nature of the recipient’s need –  rescuing someone as opposed to saving his property; 2) regarding the degree of possible self-help – the ability of the person in need to rescue himself as opposed to the provision of money.  The relationship between the two is unclear.  Perhaps, according to Meiri, each factor is a sufficient condition – that is to say, one must rescue his fellow, even if that other person is capable of saving himself; and on the other hand, as long as the person in need cannot not help himself, he is not obligated to compensate the rescuer, even if the latter only saves his property.  Alternatively, the Meira may believe that each factor is a necessary but not sufficient condition, so that there is no obligation to help another unless both factors are present, as in the case in Kiddushin.  This question, of course, has halakhic and conceptual ramifications.  But in any event, Meiri raises the issue of comparing the mitzvot of perika and te’ina to other realms of assistance.

       It should be added that Meiri speaks of an obligation to compensate the rescuer after the fact and not about his obligation to rescue in the first place.  But the two are interdependent.  If Reuven is obligated to save Shimon, Shimon is not obligated to compensate him, for Reuven was not acting on his behalf, but in God’s service, though Shimon was the direct beneficiary.  This should be compared to the dispute among the Rishonim about whether a physician is permitted to receive compensation for his services; see Kitvei Ha-Ramban (ed. R. Chavel), II, pp. 43-45. 

[15]    Logically speaking, there is, of course, room to distinguish between tzedaka as a mitzva devolving upon the individual, which applies even with respect to those who fail to help themselves, and the distribution of communal charity funds.  A similar distinction was proposed by several Rishonim regarding a person’s right to receive charity before he sells all of his expensive belongings; see Ketuvot 68a, and Tosafot, s.v. kan; Rif (ad loc.); Tur, YD 253. 

[16]    Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim 10:7.

[17]    Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 5:1.

[18]    Ibid. 7:1.

[19]    Pe’a 8:9. 

[20]    Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim 10:19.  The Mishna cites the parallel verse, “Blessed is the man who trusts in God” (Yirmiyahu 17:7), as the source of its ruling regarding “one who is in need of taking, and does not do so,” but it does not explain itself.  Radbaz (ad loc.) understands that Rambam inferred “that ‘blessed’ implies ‘cursed.’ ”

[21]    Hilkhot Eivel 14:1.

[22]    Sota 14aThe Gemara here relates to the verse: “You shall walk after the Lord your God” (Devarim 13:5), whereas Rambam, who speaks about character traits rather than about actions (Hilkhot De’ot 1:6), cites the verse, “You shall walk in His ways” (Devarim 28:9).  It is necessary to understand the difference between the verses, but this is not the forum to expand upon the matter.  

, full_html, To what degree and by what means should we press for the increased participation of the recipient of aid, and to what extent is it possible to condition the extension of assistance on his readiness to share the burden? Regarding this point, opinions differ, and Judaism’s position on the matter must be clarified.

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