This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Spare Change*

This past summer, the social service agencies in Calgary began posting advertisements in the city's trains and buses in order to persuade the public that it is counterproductive to give money to individual beggars on the street. This ostensible act of generosity, they insisted, is likely to aggravate the recipient's dependence, rather than solving the problem.

Though panhandlers may have appeared to be nuisance in Calgary, it takes a few months in Jerusalem to reveal the real extremes which the practice can reach. Large segments of the population of the holy city have been brought up in the belief that the world owes them charity, whether or not they make any efforts to support themselves productively.

I have found myself in the uncomfortable situation of having to warn my children--reversing years of effort invested in cultivating their generosity and compassion--that they should carefully avoid the greedy hands that will be constantly and arrogantly reaching at them as they stroll around Meah She'arim or the Western Wall.

In Israel, this world-owes-me-a-living attitude is not confined to a few individual shnorrers; it actually translates into a full-scale political culture. Ultra-orthodox parties have been established largely in order to pressure the government into supporting a constituency that has little inclination to pay its own way through life.

Centuries ago, the sages of the Talmud had to deal with individuals who tried to bypass the communal welfare agencies in order to abuse people's generosity and gain an unfair advantage over others in need. An ancient ruling laid down "No assistance of any sort is to be given to beggars who go from door to door."

The Talmud softened the severity of that ruling, permitting the mendicants to be given a small coin--though some commentators insisted that even this should be distributed by the official agencies, and not at the whims of individual donors.

The Jewish community always took care of its poor, to a degree that had no parallel in any other society. In Talmudic times, to be "poor" usually meant that one did not possess land. Such dispossessed persons hired themselves out as itinerant agricultural labourers, and their economic fortunes were subject to the caprices of the season and market.

The oral tradition translated the Biblical commandment of tzedakah into an elaborate network of funds and agencies to care for the destitute. Even small rural communities were scrupulous to maintain a "kuppah," which would pay out a weekly stipend to those who required it; a "tamhui" where the hungry could receive their daily meals; as well as specialized funds to supply dowries, burial, ransom of captives and other needs that could arise. These agencies carefully screened the beneficiaries of their charities, to insure that the limited funds would be distributed in the most equitable manner.

Referring to Ecclesiastes 7:20, "For there is not a just man [tzadik] on earth who does good and does not sin," Rabbi Judah ben Simeon asked "Is there such a thing as a tzadik who gives tzedakah and thereby sins?!" Subsequently it was explained to him that the verse can be applied to communal officials who distribute charity to those who do not deserve it, and do not adequately support those who have legitimate needs. The Mishnah warned that a fitting Heavenly punishment is in store for anyone who receives charity when they do not really require it. Such individuals "will not leave this world before they have truly become dependent on the generosity their fellow creatures."

The rabbis were aware that generosity did not constitute a virtue if it was channeled to the undeserving. Although the indiscriminate dropping of a coin into the pushkah has been turned by some into a ritualized act designed to add points to our mitzvah rating, the administrators of a fully functional Jewish society were required to focus less on the spiritual betterment of the donor than on the efficient allocation of the resources to the appropriate recipients. The daunting responsibilities that come with the judicious distribution of charitable funds can be felt in the words of Rabbi Yosé ben Halafta: "Let my lot be with the collectors of charitable donations, and not with those charged with distributing the funds."

Such a situation formed the basis for a Talmudic exposition of Jeremiah's diatribe against the people of Judah: "Let them be caused to stumble before you. Deal thus with them in the time of your anger" (18:23). Rava interpreted the verse as if the prophet were beseeching God "Even when they perform charitable acts, cause them to stumble on account of individuals who are undeserving, so that they will not earn any merit for their actions."

Some of our sages even found consolation in the fact that not all beggars could be trusted, since it lightened the overwhelming responsibility to respond to every cry for assistance, in keeping with the Torah's grave warnings against ignoring the plight of the legitimate poor.

I used to have a neighbour in Jerusalem who spent his working hours holding out a cup on a street-corner--after which he came home to his comfortable middle-class suburb. A similar experience befell Rabbi Hanina in the Talmud when he was informed by his wife that a beggar to whom he was accustomed to send weekly donations was in fact very affluent.

The good rabbi reacted with relief, declaring "Come let us express our appreciation to the swindlers; for were it not for them, we would be committing sins each day!"

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressNovember 4 1999, pp. 14-5 (as: "Buddy can you spare a dime?").

  • Bibliography:
    • Urbach, E. E. "Political and Social Tendencies in Talmudic Concepts of Charity." Zion 16, no. 3-4 (1951): 1-27.