The Responsibility of Tzedakah

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Judah Kerbel

דברים פרק טו

ז) כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן

ח) כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ

ט) הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן יִהְיֶה דָבָר עִם לְבָבְךָ בְלִיַּעַל לֵאמֹר קָרְבָה שְׁנַת הַשֶּׁבַע שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה וְרָעָה עֵינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ וְקָרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל יְקֹוָק וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא

י) נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹא יֵרַע לְבָבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ

יא) כִּי לֹא יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶךָ

(7) If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the LORD thy God gives you, you should not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother;

(8) but you should surely open your hand for him, and should surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he lacks.

(9) Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand’; and your eye be evil against your needy brother, and you give him nothing; and he cry to the LORD against you, and it be sin in you.

(10) You should surely give him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give him; because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work, and in all that you put your hand to.

(11) For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You should surely open your hand for your poor and needy brother, in your land’. (Devarim 15:7-11, JPS translation).

Taken in isolation, these verses discuss the general mitzvah of tzedakah. In fact, Rambam cites these verses as the source for many of the laws of tzedakah (see Hil. Matanot Aniyim 7:1-3, 13). There is a mitzvah to provide the poor with their needs, and this should be done with a positive attitude. Acting miserly towards the poor is strongly prohibited.

However, these pesukim appear in the context of shemitat kesafim, the nullification of loans at the end of the shemitta year.  In context, the simple meaning of the verse is narrow: a person has an obligation to be generous in giving loans even when shemittah is approaching. This is further supported by verse nine, which warns that one should not be stingy out of concern regarding the approaching shemitta year. Why then does halakhah use these verses to establish the general laws of tzedakah?

If tzedakah were taught in isolation, we might think of it as an investment; give to the poor in order so as to create a social safety net for yourself, so that others will do the same for you.  Tzedakah would always be an implicit loan.  But while a loan by definition implies that the lender will eventually be paid back, shemitat kesafim transforms loans into tzedakah, and thus teaches us that tzedakah  should not be thought of as an investment.  

The Torah acknowledges that it is natural for people to resist giving out loans knowing that they may not be paid back fully. Nevertheless, when there are people in the community in need, those with means have a responsibility towards them, and the  Torah calls upon them to accept this responsibility.  Sometimes it is possible to help people and be repaid in return; sometimes that is not possible.  This must not dissuade people from assisting others, which is what justice demands.

Verse nine identifies one who does not feel this demand of justice as בליעל.  This term appears again later in our parasha, in Devarim 13:14. In that context, people who are בני-בליעל entice (מסית) the residents of their cities to engage in avodah zarah. Rashi explains that בני-בליעל are people who are בלי עול, שפרקו עולו של מקום – They have shrugged off the yoke of Heaven and feel no obligation.  Perhaps those who who refrain from helping others are בליעל in the same way – not only do they stray, they cause others to stray due to their lack of sensibility.

The Gemara  makes a different connection between the mesit and one who fails to give tzedakah, saying that one who turns a blind eye from someone in need of tzedakah is as if he has done avodah zarah (Ketubot 68a). I suggest that the commonality between these two is that one who does not feel the yoke of responsibility by definition cannot be linked to the G-d of B’nei Yisrael.  Whether it’s a matter of obligations towards G-d or obligations towards other people, one who casts away that obligation, a בליעל, is not walking in the way of G-d.

With the shemitta year ending and the Yamim Noraim approaching, although we now use the prozbul mechanism to allow Beit Din to collect loans, let us hear the call to help those in need and be grateful for the spiritually rewarding opportunity to give without the condition of receiving in return.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is beginning his second year at RIETS and his first year at the Bernard Revel Graduate School, concentrating in medieval Jewish history.



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