Judaism and the Homeless

Jewish law demands that everyone have adequate and permanent housing.

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The parallel themes of homelessness and wandering pervade the Bible and Jewish history. In the first chapters of the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Abraham begins his relationship with God by leaving his native land, and Jacob and his sons leave their own home to go down to Egypt. After the Exodus, the Israelites journey through the wilderness, homeless, for 40 years. The destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem is followed by 70 years of exile, and the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. is followed by two millennia of national homelessness, which ended only with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Homeless man

It is no wonder, then, that Jewish law (halakhah) attempts to guarantee housing stability. Though powerless to grant the Jewish people a permanent home, halakhah can at least help to assure individual members a stable place to live.

A Religious Duty

A few Jewish sources explicitly speak of the provision of housing as a means of tzedakah (charity). Most famous among these texts is the exhortation in Isaiah to "take the poor into your homes," read as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur.  This prophetic cry defines the relief of homelessness as a religious duty, preferable to fasts, sacrifices, and other ritual observances.

Other texts specifically define housing as one of the obligatory types of tzedakah. The Bible commands that a poor person be granted "sufficient for what lacks, according to what is lacking to him." One talmudic text understands each phrase in that command as referring to a specific type of assistance one might grant a poor person: "'Sufficient for what he lacks'--this is a house. 'What is lacking'--this is a bed and table." Significantly, this text imagines the primary needs of a poor person as being related to housing.

The majority of rabbinic and medieval texts describing tzedakah, however, focus on the obligation to provide food for the poor. This emphasis on food may reflect a reality in which, in contrast to the contemporary situation, food was expensive and housing was cheap. One mishnah even comments that a poor person should not be obligated to sell his or her house before being allowed to qualify for tzedakah.

From our vantage point, it seems surprising that a poor person would have a home but would not have sufficient food. However, whether out of ideology or economic reality, this text and others assume that no matter how poor a person might be, he or she is at least adequately housed.

"Adequate" Housing

While Jewish law does not specifically offer a definition of adequate housing, we can infer much about a Jewish definition of a house from the laws regarding the sukkah, a temporary structure constructed for the weeklong holiday of Sukkot. In establishing laws governing the construction of a sukkah, the rabbis of the Talmud go to great lengths to define the conditions under which a house might be considered temporary.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.