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”).

In addition to these rules, which applied to every year’s harvest, every seventh year the entire Land of Israel was to be left fallow. This shabbaton (sabbatical year) not only would allow the earth to regenerate itself, but would, to a degree, put the entire community on an equal footing. Everyone would depend for food on gleaning from the land. In that sense everyone would live as the most vulnerable or marginal would in a typical year—although the more fortunate might have stored crops from the previous year.

Threshing floor.  When grain and fruit were brought in from the harvest, various tithes and offerings were mandated. Most of these tithes went to support the priests and Levites, who owned no land of their own. In the rabbinic interpretation of the biblical rules, ten percent of each harvest was to be given to the Levites (ma’aser, the original tithe), and five percent to the priests (t’rumah). Normally, a second tithe was reserved to be brought to Jerusalem and eaten during a pilgrimage celebration. During years three and six of the seven-year sabbatical cycle, this tithe was to be put to use locally, set aside for Levites, strangers, widows and orphans.

Loans.  The Torah recognizes loans not for commercial development but to support those in need. The basic mandate was to lend someone dai machsoro, “sufficient for his lack.” The purpose of the loan was to help restore someone to his former situation, not simply to prevent starvation. Lending is strictly regulated in the Torah. Interest could not be charged on loans of money or food. A creditor was forbidden from seizing as collateral tools necessary for the debtor’s livelihood. A garment pledged against a loan was to be returned for the night. A creditor was forbidden to enter a debtor’s home to take a pledge.

Among the Torah’s most radical innovations is the shemitah, the cancellation of all debts every seven years. This practice parallels the sabbatical of the land, as well as the jubilee year, during which almost all land was returned to its original family owners if they had sold it (presumably to stave off poverty). The Torah specifically warns against using the approaching shemitah as an excuse not to lend money to a person in need.

Indentured servitude.  As noted above, the Torah recognizes slavery as a last resort—after a person has sold his family land holdings or his labor. The texts that lay out the laws of slavery are not entirely consistent. Scholars debate whether the “Hebrew slave” in Exodus 22 is an Israelite or not; in Deuteronomy 15 the slave is referred to as “your brother,” while in Leviticus 25 the Torah instructs that “your brother” not be enslaved but employed as a wage laborer. In all cases, the law requires that the servant be freed eventually--after six years (Exodus and Deuteronomy), at the jubilee (Leviticus), or when a family “redeemer” can pay off the slave’s debt.

Running through many aspects of these laws is a fundamental egalitarianism. Leviticus expresses it in the statement that all Israelites are “slaves” to God. This egalitarianism was concretized by the periodic cancellation of debts, the freeing of those who have sold themselves into servitude, and the restoration of land sold to pay off debts. While equality was not preserved at all times, conditions would be reset periodically. The purpose (and the condition) of what the Torah calls beracha (prosperity from God; literally “blessing”) is that beracha be shared widely. Even when the Torah recognizes the reality of their being rich and poor, it insists that each person be treated with dignity and justice. especially in moments when a person’s poverty is most evident.

In the Torah there is no overarching term for this system, which rabbinic Judaism calls tzedakah. The root tz-d-k in the Hebrew Bible generally refers to the quality of justice. Mishpat tzedek means laws that are just or courts that are just, as opposed to law that favors one group or social class. The same form, tzedek, is used to describe measures and weights that are honest and fair in commerce. The form tzedakah occurs predominantly in later biblical compositions—mostly in Second Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms, and Proverbs—where it means justice or integrity. Only in Daniel 4:24 is the word tzidka (the same consonants as tzedakah) used to refer particularly to concern for the poor.

In the Torah’s system, those who prospered were reminded of their social obligations as part of the rhythm of daily commerce, the turn of the seasons, and the cycles of years. No one knows to what extent the laws were ever practiced in biblical Israel. Even if the more radical sabbatical laws were never observed, the Torah’s scheme stands as a vivid depiction of an ideal economic system pervaded by a covenantal consciousness.

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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.