Providing What is Lacking

Jewish texts on social justice describe the tension between providing what is needed and providing what is affordable.

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Anyone who has been responsible for allocating funds knows that the definition of "need" is a slippery one. This article explores the implications of Jewish tradition's surprising call to match an assessment of what a tzedakah recipient needs to that person's own circumstances, rather than to a universal standard.

In biblical times, the needs of the poor were provided for primarily through agricultural gifts. The biblical concept of giving one tenth of one's produce to charity (ma'aser, or tithing), however, was mainly for the support of the Levites serving in the ancient Temple; only twice in seven years a tithe was given to the poor. The book of Deuteronomy imposes a more general obligation to provide for the needs of the poor:


"When there is among you a poor person, among your kin, in one of your cities, in your land which the Lord your God gives you, do not harden your heart, do not close your fist from your poor kin: Rather, you shall surely open your hand, and make him a loan, sufficient for his need, whatever he lacks" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

Although this passage specifically refers to providing a loan, it is understood by rabbinic tradition as applying to all kinds of support for the poor. The ambiguity of the requirement is troubling: how is one to determine what a poor person lacks?

Real Needs

The rabbis saw the repetition of "his need (mahsoro)" and "whatever he lacks (yehsar)"--the root of the words is indeed the same--as indicating that the "lack" referred to must be determined according to the individual, and not according to a general rule. An early rabbinic midrash (Midrash Tannaim to Deuteronomy 15) teaches:

1. "Sufficient for his need: you are commanded to keep him/her alive, but you are not commanded to enrich him.

empty wallet2. "Whatever he lacks: everything is according to his sense of dignity, even a horse to ride upon and a servant to run before him. They said about Hillel [an early rabbinic sage] that he bought for a needy child from a wealthy family a horse to ride upon and a servant to run before him. Once he could not find a servant to run before him, and [Hillel] ran before him for three miles.

3. "Once people from the Upper Galilee provided for a needy child from a formerly wealthy family a pound of meat every day."

The first tradition places a limit on "need"; one does not enrich the poor. The second tradition, which expansively includes maintaining and even restoring lost dignity, seems to contradict the first; having a horse and a slave was the ancient equivalent of a chauffeur-driven limousine. Would that not be considered "enriching"?

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.