Judaism and the Homeless

Jewish law demands that everyone have adequate and permanent housing.

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It is reasonable, then, to assume that the characteristics that would make a house too permanent to qualify as a sukkah tell us something about the rabbinic definition of permanent housing.

The sukkah, the rabbis tell us, must be stable enough to be lived in for a week, but sufficiently unstable that it can not be mistaken for a permanent house. Opinions differ about what would make a structure too permanent to qualify as a sukkah--some consider the deciding factor to be height, while others focus on the types of building materials used. While precise definitions vary, all sources consider a structure to be too permanent for a sukkah if it would appear to a passerby as sufficiently stable to house a person for the entire year, and not only for a single week.

While temporary, the sukkah must be stable enough to serve as housing for the week. During the holiday of Sukkot, a person is supposed to "eat, drink and sleep in the sukkah... and bring one's nice dishes into the sukkah" (Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 28b). Permanence, according to this text, is conveyed by the ability to live a full and dignified life within the sukkah for the duration of the holiday.

From this discussion of the sukkah, we can infer that permanent housing should allow a person to live a full and dignified life year-round, and not only for a week. Furthermore, permanent housing, unlike a sukkah, should look permanent. That is, it should be stable enough that anyone would recognize it as a place in which a person might live indefinitely. In the contemporary context, we might consider whether a homeless shelter or transitional housing would meet these criteria of being a place in which people can live with dignity for an indefinite period of time.

Jewish law does not explicitly discuss the mechanism by which we provide permanent housing to the poor, but simply assumes that, in a functional society, the poor have stable housing. The question for us might be: What is the most effective way for us to create the society envisioned by Jewish law? Charitable donations to organizations that help house the homeless are one obvious way. Donating to or participating in community-based efforts to construct affordable housing or direct assistance to homeless or inadequately-housed families can help reduce some of the housing burden.

But with a problem this large and complex, a more effective means of working to end homelessness might be political action, advocating for governmental policies and programs that provide housing to those in need and/or give people the means to afford housing on their own.

Landlord-Tenant Relations

In addition to suggesting some criteria for permanent housing, Jewish law offers much insight into the ideal landlord-tenant relationship. As in the discussion of the parameters of a sukkah, the primary concern in laws regarding landlord-tenant relations seems to be the question of permanence. Landlords are forbidden from evicting tenants without due warning, and may not evict tenants during the winter months, when new housing will be hard to find.  According to Moses Maimonides, a landlord must give the tenant sufficient notice before terminating a lease "so that [the tenant] can look for another place and will not be abandoned in the street" (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot S'khirut 6:7). The landlord, Maimonides suggests, will be held responsible if a tenant becomes homeless as the result of eviction.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.