This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Collecting for Israel--Circa 1707*

Unfortunately, there have been few eras in recent history when the Jews of the Land of Israel have not been forced to rely on contributions from their coreligionists in the Diaspora. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, this situation can be blamed on the heavy economic burdens created by her security needs. In earlier generations the finances of the Holy Land communities were often depleted by cruel and rapacious rulers, by natural and humanly caused disasters, and by the otherworldly pursuits that were the principal concern of most of the Jews who dwelled there.

The gathering of donations for the populace and institutions of Israel was therefore a constant source of concern. The wandering emissaries from yeshivot and charitable foundations became a familiar feature of diaspora life. Many distinguished rabbis donned the cloak of the mendicant journeying through the Jewish expanses in search of material sustenance for their communities. In fact special manuals would be composed to advise the fund-raisers how to make useful contacts in the various cities and effectively present their cases before the prospective donors. These handbooks provide us with some engaging insights into the dynamics of Jewish communal life.

One of the most ambitious of the emissaries' manuals was the Sefat Emet by the Jerusalemite Rabbi Moshe Hagiz, which appeared in Amsterdam in 1707. From this book we can learn of the difficulties that frequently obstructed the fund-raisers of the time. Rabbi Hagiz devotes much space to the refutation of common criticisms accusations that would be leveled against the collectors. For example, to the charge that the needs of the recipients appear to be insatiable he responds with a detailed financial report of the community's expenditures and growing debts. Nonetheless it was charged that they would use the revenues to "drink coffee and chew tobacco, and scribble whatever comes to mind so they can publish it." Some communal leaders were arguing that priority should be given to pressing local needs. Others were even claiming that Jews had no business living in Eretz Yisra'el before the advent of the Messiah!

Hagiz has harsh words for the reluctant philanthropists who prefer to waste their money in the "conspicuous consumption" of fancy homes and vehicles and extravagant social lives, but treat the visiting emissaries with scorn and disrespect. He accuses them of giving more generously to local gentile charities than to their own needy brethren.

One issue raised by Rabbi Hagiz strikes me as particularly noteworthy. He mentions that in some of the larger European Jewish communities, such as Amsterdam, Venice and Livorno there were in circulation private lists of worthy candidates for charitable donations. Such individual lists counteracted the established policy of having the funds collected and distributed by a centralized authority. Hagiz himself was opposed to this development which threatened the fairness of the allocations and weakened the authority of the recognized institutions.

Hagiz does not make it clear how this state of affairs arose. Perhaps it was the consequence of widespread suspicions regarding the efficiency or trustworthiness of the central agencies. It is also possible that political considerations played a part. The Jewish world in Eretz Yisra'el and abroad was at that time in the throes of a fierce struggle between the aggressive followers of the messianic pretender Shabbetai Zvi and his opponents over the control of Jewish religious and communal institutions. Under such circumstances, potential contributors would take especial care to assign their donations only to like-minded individuals and organizations.

As usual, the issues confronted by the Jews in eighteenth-century Amsterdam have a distinctly familiar ring to them, and the intervening centuries have not diminished the resonance of the venerable Hebrew tomes.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]
First Publication: Jewish Free Press, March 17 1994.

Bibliography:

  • Elisheva Carlebach, The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies, New York, 1990.