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The Challenge of Wealth

Parshas Vayigash

By Dr. Meir Tamari

When the Egyptians sold their cattle and their land to Pharoah and to Joseph in order to be fed, they exchanged their personal freedom for economic security. By becoming indentured servants they created a pattern that has been repeated in history. In medieval Europe serfs traded freedom for physical security, as did the Japanese during their feudal era. It is argued that in modern times the socialist and communist economies were a similar phenomenon in which freedom was traded for social security through planned economies and state control. The only similar process that we find in Torah is that of the eved ivri. There is no connotation here of slavery comparable to that of the ancient world of Greece and Rome or of the 17th-19th centuries in the Americas. Even though the biblical text speaks of a Hebrew slave this stands in stark contrast to these other economy's that were based on a large slave population, a population that had no rights and were human chattels. The following philosophical and religious concepts that lay at the basis of the Hebrew bondsman, were translated into practice in the Israeli economy both of the First Temple and of the Second Temple, in which there were no large estates or workshops using slave labor but rather an economy of laborers, small farmers, artisans and traders.

Actually the Torah was speaking about indentured men and maidservants. Here a person who, not being able to provide for himself and his family was able to sell his services for six years in exchange for a livelihood. This permission appears in the Torah after a description of the sale of possessions and land only because of poverty, but for no other reason (Leviticus, 25: 36- 43; see Torat Cohanim). Basing themselves on these verses the rabbis taught that, "A person who buys a servant buys himself a master"(Kiddushin, 20a;especially Tosafot there). This flows from the halakhic rules (MishnehTorah, Hilkhot Avadim, chapter 1, halakhot 5,6,7,9; chapter 3,halakhot1, 14) that stipulate that the servant be provided with the same style of living as the master, cannot be made to do disgraceful or useless jobs and needs to be to be given a golden parachute at the end of his service. All of these are rights that do not apply to the wage earner and were simply compensation for the lack of freedom. This freedom flowed from Israel being servants of G-d who could not therefore be servants to servants. Furthermore, the owner has to assume the obligation to provide for the eved's wife and children.

Even though the institution of the eved ivri came to an end with the abolition of the Jubilee year, the problem of poverty still continues to exist and is addressed in the Jewish framework in two ways; philanthropy that is dealt with here and taxation to be dealt with in parshat shmot.

It is clear that we all have a Torah obligation to provide for the needs of the poor, the ill, the weak and the marginal members of society. Prior to the laws of eved ivri, we find the interest free loan, a major form of combating poverty introduced by the text that obligates us to support our poor brethren (Leviticus, 25:38). This support is codified as obligatory halakhah in all the codes and throughout the halakhic literature, both in a positive form and as a negative mitzvah forbidding us from refraining to do so (Mishneh Torah, chapter 7,halakhah 1-2; based on Deuteronomy, 15:7-8) Furthermore, this is not an option left to the individual but one that can be enforced by the batei din. "A person who gives less than his due [according to the communal tax assessor], the court forces him and applies corporal punishment until he pays what he has been assessed. They have the right to seize his assets for the amount of his debt to the charitable funds even be on the eve of the Sabbath" (Yoreh Deah, section 249)

It must be stressed that this obligation doesn't flow from any concept of mutual utility but rather from an understanding that the Fatherhood of God is necessarily translated into the Brotherhood of Mankind. In Judaism, not only is there a vertical relationship between Man and God but also a horizontal relationship between people created in His Image. This is highlighted by the halakhah that we are obligated to support the poor of the nations of the world together with those of Israel. (Tosefta Gittin, chapter 3; Mishneh Torah Shmittah ve Yovel chapter8, halakhah 8; Tur, Choshen Mishpat section 249, subsection 2- see there Prisha, Bach, Taz,Shach).

All the Codes rank the types of charity in a descending order, one that has much significance for present -day welfare issues. At the highest level is the charity that provides employment, makes available funds or knowledge enabling the unemployed or the poor to establish a business, or that in any way prevents people from sinking into poverty and enables them to break the poverty cycle. At the macro economic level this would be translated into public policy of providing employment, technical education and appropriate funding for new business, rather than a continuation of handouts of basic necessities that only perpetuates poverty. If it is not possible for the individual to fund the needs of the poor they are obligated to bring it to the notice of the authorities so they may then use tax money to solve the problem (Ramah, Yoreh Deah, section 250, subsection 1).

Like in everything else in life, there are limitations imposed by the halakhah on charity. "We are not obligated to make the poor rich but only to keep them alive" (Mishneh Torah, Matnot Aniyim,Chapter 7, halakhah 3). Only a person who has net equity of less than 200 zuz [considered enough for a year's sustenance] can avail himself of the agricultural gifts to the poor dictated by Torah and only one who does not have 14 meals for the week or 2 meals for that day may avail themselves of the communal food funds (op. cit, chapter 9, halakhah 13. See also Yoreh Deah, section 250, subsection 4, for similar restrictions). Irrespective of how we define the minimum standards of living to be provided by charity, this concept places a limit on a society's obligation to give. It should be born in mind that there is no society in the world that can provide freely everything that a person needs or wants; a reaction to overshooting in welfare costs is shown in the drastic cuts in welfare payments and the social safety net that we witness in Western economies in last decades.

Furthermore, there is a major moral problem caused by creating a welfare mentality amongst recipients. Fraud, a concept that society owes one a living, earned or not, and the loss of self- respect and creativity created by chronic unemployment, are the price society pays for such a mentality. Charitable funds are made available as a result of other people's religious or spiritual obligations but also from involuntary contributions through the tax system and therefore it is not fitting that they should be abused.

It was always considered in Judaism meritorious to avoid living off charity. " A person should make his Shabbat simple [literally weekday], rather than have recourse to [the charity of] others. A person should flog a carcass in public [considered demeaning work] rather than accept charity" (Talmud, Pesachim, 112a and113a). We pray in the grace after meals that our livelihoods should not come from the hands of another human being. These and many similar thoughts, inculcate a mindset that sees a shame in receiving charity and it is suggested that this shame is an effective tool against the welfare mentality. This in no way should be construed as minimizing the many obligations that halakhah imposes on the distributors of charity whether private philanthropy or tax funded, to ensure that the dignity and self-respect of the recipient are not infringed. Nor does it in any way free us from our charitable obligations in all their forms.

The Hebrew texts do not speak about giving charity but about doing charity.

Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.

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