Providing What is Lacking

Jewish texts on social justice describe the tension between providing what is needed and providing what is affordable.

Print this page Print this page

The story of Hillel clarifies the obligation to consider the needs of the particular individual. Hillel went to this extreme in order to restore the poor person's former dignity. And lest one label Hillel's act excessive piety, the third tradition makes it clear that the community in the Upper Galilee, dealing with communal funds, also deemed a high level of individual consideration appropriate, and not "enriching."

Conventional Substitutes for the "Real Need" Standard

The passage from Midrash Tannaim continues:

4. "'Sufficient for his need': one who comes across a needy person is obligated to fill his lack, as it says 'sufficient for his need.' If one's hand does not reach far enough [to meet his needs], one gives as far as one's hand does reach.

5. "And how much is that? Up to one fifth of one's property is the best way to fulfill the obligation; one tenth of one's property is average; less is stingy….

6. "Based on this, they said [in Mishnah Peah 8:7]: We do not provide an itinerant poor person with less than a loaf of bread  (about 1.5 pounds).  If [the poor person] stays over night, [we additionally provide] funds for lodging. If he stays over Shabbat, [we provide] food for three meals."

The fourth tradition in this midrash similarly creates a sweeping obligation to provide whatever one can afford. This standard, however, is as ambiguous and problematic as the obligation to provide "whatever he lacks"-- how is one to determine exactly what one can afford? How should one adjust one's own standard of living in order to provide for the needs of the poor?

Although the dual ideals of (a) providing what an individual needs and (b) contributing what one can truly afford both reflect the intent behind the law, neither are practical, effective statements of law. The fifth tradition substitutes conventional categories in place of the ideal standard of "whatever one can afford"" 20% is best, 10% is average, less is stingy. The sixth tradition establishes a minimum standard for what is to be provided in place of the ideal of "whatever he lacks:" appropriate food and lodging.

Who Defines Need?

Jewish legal texts include both the ideal and the conventional expressions of the law, making clear that the conventional statement does not define the full extent of one's obligation. "Whatever he lacks" includes acknowledging that the form of one's assistance should precisely match the needs and abilities of the needy person. R. Joel Sirkes (16th-17th century Poland) ties this idea to the verse from Deuteronomy 15:

"If it is appropriate to give him bread, we give him bread, and this is 'sufficient for his needs.' And if it is appropriate to give him dough, we do not give him bread, but rather dough, and this is 'whatever he lacks.' And if it is not acceptable to him to give him bread or dough, but he asks for money, because it is his desire to buy food that he prefers, we give him money, and this 'to him' [reading the last word of the verse separately]" (Bayit Chadash on the Tur, Yoreh De'ah 250).

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.