The Role of Government

The Journey to Unity - 66

The Role of Government:

This letter is dedicated to my parents of blessed memory, Seymour and Adeline Oboler, who were my first teachers of "tzedakah" - the mitzvah to share our resources with those in need. My parents were progressive social activists who believed that the institutions of government should be involved in helping the needy. They themselves, however, did not solely rely on the government when it came to the mitzvah of tzedakah. Although their own income was very limited, they personally helped many individuals in need, and they trained me and my sister to emulate their example. They were also aware that the highest form of tzedakah is to help people support themselves; thus, my mother, who was active in the Democratic party, used her connections to help unemployed people find work. In addition, they believed that local community groups can also have an important role in helping the needy.

Dear Friends,

Should the government have a role in the fulfillment of tzedakah? During the 20th century, there were those on the left of the political spectrum that sought to have the government be responsible for all the needs of the poor. And there were those on the right of the political spectrum who believed that the government should have no involvement in helping the poor, as in their view, such "charitable" acts should be left to the discretion of individual citizens. Today, a growing number of activists from both sides of the political spectrum are modifying their views in their search for a more balanced approach. Many activists on the "left" now recognize that the bureaucratic institutions of the government cannot properly solve all the problems of the poor and that the involvement of citizens on a local level is crucial in the development of better programs which are more humane and more practical. Many activists on the "right" now recognize that the needs of the poor cannot be fully met without "some" government support and involvement. As we shall begin to discuss in this letter, the balanced approach that these activists are seeking can be found in the Torah. Given the complex nature of this issue, we cannot discuss all the economic and social ramifications in this letter, but I hope that the following teachings can serve as a starting point for future study and discussion.

One of the sources for the mitzvah of tzedakah is found in the following passage:

"If there shall be among you a needy person, any of your brethren within any of your cities, in the land that the Compassionate One, your God, gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him..." (Deut. 15:7,8)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that if we closely examine the above verses, we will notice that the opening section is addressed to the community as a whole: "If there shall be among you a needy person." The next section, however, is addressed to the individual: "You shall not harden your heart, and "You shall open your hand to him." Rabbi Hirsch therefore makes the following observation:

"The Torah has the community and the individual simultaneously in mind. The duty of caring and providing for the poor, which is set forth here, rests equally upon the community as a whole and upon each one of its individual members...Both must join forces; both work hand in hand if the goal set by the Torah is to be reached."

Rabbi Hirsch also cites the Talmud (Baba Basra 8b) which states that the Torah gives the governing institutions of the community the right to levy a tax for tzedakah on the members of the community, each according to his means. In addition, Rabbi Hirsch points out that in a Torah society, tzedakah is not only a responsibility of the governing institutions of the community, and of the individual; it is also the responsibility of voluntary societies. He writes:

"The task which the duty of Jewish tzedakah imposes is so serious and so great that only the combination of these three factors - the community, the societies, and private individuals working together - can come near to accomplishing it."

Rabbi Hirsch's comments indicate that the Torah society is not one where the poor depend solely on the bureaucratic institutions of the government, nor is the Torah society one where the poor depend solely on the voluntary contributions and efforts of kind-hearted individuals. From the perspective of the Torah, tzedekah is a Divine mandate which is both a social and individual responsibility. For the task of tzedakah is great and complex, and it requires the cooperation of all levels of society.

Rabbi Hirsch referred to the power of the governing institutions in each community to levy a tzedakah tax on each of its members according to one's means. This power is codified in the classical works of "halacha" - Torah law. The following source can serve as an example:

"Every city which has Jews is obligated to appoint officials who are well known and trustworthy, who will go among the people during the weekdays and collect from each one what is appropriate for him to give and what has been assessed of him (by the officials of the community)...We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which does not have such a fund for tzedakah." (The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, Zeraim, Gifts to the Poor, chap. 9:1-3)

As we discussed in previous letters, Jewish tradition views tzedakah as not only an act of love, but also as an act of justice. According to the Torah, the needy have a claim to our assistance, and the governing institutions of the Jewish community are given the responsibility to enforce that claim.

There is another mitzvah in the Torah which indicates that the responsibility of governing institutions to enforce the laws of tzedakah is an awesome one. This mitzvah involves a case where the body of someone who was murdered is found in a field, and it is not known who the murderer is. Representatives of the Supreme Court of the nation must determine which city is closest to the place where the body was found. The judges of the city closest to the site must then bring an atonement offering and publicly proclaim the following words:

"Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see him." (Deut. 21:7)

Regarding the above statement of the judges, the Talmud asks: "Would we ever have imagined that the sages of the court are shedders of blood?" The Talmud replies that their statement is referring to their possible responsibility for causing the circumstances which led to the crime. What their statement implies is: "No one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged without food, and whom we did not notice and thereby neglected to provide him with an escort" (Sotah 46b). In his explanation of this talmudic passage, the classical commentator, Rashi, interprets the statement of the judges to mean: "He was not killed through us, because we sent him away without food and so forced him to become a highwayman, through which he was killed." In other words, the members of the court must proclaim that this person's death was not caused by the failure of the governing institutions of their city to provide tzedakah and an escort for this traveler.

As Rabbi Hirsch reminded us, however, the responsibility for tzedakah does not rest only on the governing institutions of the community. As the above halacha from the Shulchan Aruch stated: "Every person is obligated to give tzedakah, even the poor who themselves are recipients thereof." Rabbi Hirsch also reminded us that in a Torah society, there are tzedakah needs which are met by voluntary associations and groups. Such a group was known as a "chevrah," and in most Jewish communities, there were chevros for giving food and clothing to the needy, visiting the sick, helping poor brides, burying the dead, and arranging hospitality for travelers - especially on Shabbos and the Festivals.

A small town or village in Eastern Europe was known in Yiddish as a "shtetl." In his inspiring book of memoirs, "Once Upon a Shtetl," Chaim Shapiro has a chapter about the tzedakah chevros of his hometown in Lithuania, the shtetl of Lomza. Among the town's various chevros was one called "Korban Eitzim" - the offering of trees. The name goes back to the days of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There was a need for firewood to burn on the altar of the Temple, and people would donate wood for that purpose. The Korban Eitzim Chevrah of Lomza collected wood for another sacred purpose - to provide fuel for poor families during the cold winter months. The officers of this society would personally drop off the firewood at the homes of those in need. At the same time, they would "smuggle in" a few sacks of potatoes or other vegetables - a rare commodity during the winter season. In this particular chapter, Chaim Shapiro tells the following story:

On one Shabbos each year, all the donations - pledged during the Torah readings in the town's synagogues - were designated for the Chevrah Korban Eitzim. The rabbi of the town was the noted sage, Rabbi Elya Chaim Meisel, who was famous for his tzedakah activism. The officers of the Eitzim Chevrah complained to him about a certain prosperous man in the town, known as Reb Mendel, who failed to support the cause in a proper manner. One Sunday morning, very early, Rabbi Elya Chaim went out in subzero temperature to pay a visit to Reb Mendel. The Rabbi, wearing his heavy winter coat and hat, knocked on the miser's door. The man, wondering who could be forcing him out of bed so early in the morning, grabbed his robe and bedroom slippers and went to open the door. When he saw the "rebbe" (teacher) of the town standing there, he exclaimed in astonishment: "Rebbe! Good morning. It's so early; come in, please." Rabbi Meisel refused to enter, and he said. "I'm on my way to the early morning services. I just wanted to know how you are." The man replied, "Oh, I'm fine, thanks."

"And how is your family?" continued the Rabbi, very much at his leisure.

"Thank God, fine, fine. We're all fine. But please come in Rebbe - it's freezing outside!" Reb Mendel was shivering from the cold.

But the Rabbi said, "No, I have no time to come in. I'm already late for shul. I happened to be passing by, so I wanted to see how everything is with you. How is business? How are the boys doing in yeshiva?"

"Rebbe, can't we discuss everything inside, where it's warm? It's below zero out here!"

"No, no, don't bother. I'm just leaving," the Rabbi answered. He fixed the other man with a penetrating look and added: "But you know, Reb Mendel, there are homes here in town that are just as cold on the inside as on the outside. That's why we have Chevrah Korban Eitzim. Have a good day!"

Reb Mendel got the message. And the task of the Jewish people is to help the entire world get the message. This idea is expressed in a teaching from Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (B'ha'aloscha 8):

"In the future, the nations will be drawn to your light, as it says: 'And nations will go to your light' (Isaiah 60:3). And what is the light that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will shine upon Israel? It is the light of tzedakah, as it says: 'But to you who are in awe of My Name, the sun of tzedakah will shine' (Malachi 3:20)."

"The sun of tzedakah will shine" - The tzedakah that you do will shine for you like the sun (commentary of Metzudas David).


Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings and Comments:

1. In Letters 62a and 62b, we explored Torah teachings which indicate that all nations have an obligation to share their resources with those in need. In this spirit, Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 13th century, writes: "All nations must practice tzedakah and compassion, for they exist because of these practices and are punished for their neglect." This teaching is from Rabbenu Bachya's work, "Kad HaKemach" - the chapter on the stranger. There is an English translation of "Kad HaKemach" by Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel titled, "Encyclopedia of Torah Thoughts" published by Shilo Publishing House.

2. As we mentioned previously, helping needy individuals to support themselves - when they are able to work - is the highest form of tzedakah. Loaning someone money to start a business is included in this category. The governments of nations - both national and local - therefore have a responsibility to find creative ways to help the needy to support themselves. This can be done in cooperation with community organizations and business leaders.

3. I wish to recommend the fascinating book "Once Upon a Shtetl" by Chaim Shapiro. The late Chaim Shapiro was a noted writer and historian who grew up in the shetl of Lomza. In this book, one finds a realistic portrayal of Jewish life in the shtetl. Through stories and memoirs, the author not only reveals the poverty and the anti-Semitic persecution which shtetl Jews experienced; he also reveals the rich earthly spirituality of shtetl Jews, including their great sense of humor. There is also much information about the various ways in which Jewish men and women fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah. The book is published by ArtScroll:  . The above story about Rabbi Elya Chaim Meisel was taken from this book, courtesy of the copyright holder, ArtScroll/Mesorah.


Hazon - Our Universal Vision: