Tzedakah in the Bible

The Bible backed up its exhortations to assist the poor with laws and practices that gave poor people a claim to a share of society?s wealth.

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The Bible backed up its exhortations to assist the poor with laws and practices that gave poor people a claim to a share of society’s wealth.

In the Torah’s detailed code of law in Exodus, the very first law describes the case of the “Hebrew slave”—a man who has to sell himself into indentured servitude because of poverty or debt. The focal provision of the law is the obligation of the owner to release the slave at the end of six years. In Deuteronomy, the law is elaborated and revised--the owner must “pile him up” with food and flocks as he goes free. Together, the two statements of the law of the Hebrew slave set up a parallel between God’s treatment of Israel and Israel’s treatment of those in the community who are poor. God, who is identified at the beginning of the Ten Commandments as the One “Who brought you out... from the house of slaves,” defines Israel as the people who liberate their own debt-slaves and sustain them in their freedom.

Indeed, the Torah’s framework of assistance for the poor is built almost entirely on a series of imitations of God, in accord with the command “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Life on the land God has given is a covenantal partnership between Israel and God. God and Israel each participate in making the land productive and prosperous. Israel is expected to acknowledge God’s faithfulness by reserving a portion of that prosperity for the most vulnerable. The widow, the orphan, the temporary sojourner, the landless, the poor—they command God’s special attention and concern, according to the Torah, just as the people as a whole did in Egypt. Sustaining them is in some sense the only way the community of Israel can repay God for the blessing of bounty.

biblical charityIn its details, biblical law concerning assistance for the poor deals primarily with four situations: the harvest in the field, the threshing floor, loans, and indentured servitude. The laws reflect a tension between dealing with immediate need—“for the poor shall never cease from the land”—and the ideal of “there shall no needy among you.” Both statements, in fact, appear in the same chapter, Deuteronomy 15.

In the field.  The Torah requires farmers to leave the corners (pe’ah) of their fields unharvested, left to be picked by “the poor and the stranger.” Similarly, any grain that falls to the ground as it is picked (leket) was also to be left; so too any grapes that would fall from or be left on the vine (olalot). If a farmer or his workers missed a section of the field during harvesting, they could not go back and pick it (the rabbis later termed this obligation shikh’chah, “forgetting”).

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Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett is the founder and director of MACHAR, a national project in the United States involving Jewish youth in service that promotes self-sufficiency and economic empowerment and in study of Jewish and American "texts" on wealth, success, and social responsibility.