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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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.

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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.