Bava Batra 9

The naked and the hungry.

Our daf asks when requests of the poor for help should be scrutinized:

Rav Huna says: Tzedakah collectors examine the truthfulness of one who asks for food, but they do not examine the truthfulness of one who asks for clothing.

Why does Rav Huna distinguish between these two requests? The Gemara offers two reasons, one based on svara (logical reasoning) and one based upon mikra (scriptural proof). We’ll focus only on his logical reasoning:

This person who stands before us in rags is debased (by appearing before the community almost naked) whereas that person who is hungry is not debased (openly).

The logic of Rav Huna’s policy emphasizes protecting the outward dignity of the poor. Someone who’s inadequately dressed is clearly desperate enough to show themself in public and ask for assistance, despite risking humiliation. Thus, we immediately believe that they’re in need of clothing and we restore their dignity to them without investigation. 

Rav Yehudah disagrees with Rav Huna, however:

Rav Yehuda says: Tzedakah collectors examine the truthfulness of one who asks for clothing, but they do not examine the truthfulness of one who asks for food.

The Gemara also offers a svara-based proof and a mikra-based proof for Rav Yehudah’s opposite ruling, and once again we’ll look at the one based in logic:

The one who is hungry is suffering, whereas that person who is in rags is not suffering.

Commentators on the Talmud say nearly nothing about Rav Yehudah’s reasoning, leaving us to wonder what he meant. I can only speculate: Perhaps Rav Yehudah’s reasoning was based, in part, on the Babylonian/Persian climate in which he lived in the third century. Writing in the Jewish Encyclopedia in 1906, the Talmud scholar Marcus Jastrow explains: “The climate is subtropical. Rain may fall at any time between November and February; but the rainiest months are November and December. The rest of the year is dry and extremely hot, though rain is not unknown, in the form of brief showers.” In such a hot, arid climate, it’s possible that people wore fewer clothes, which easily wore out from extreme dry heat. People may have suffered less from clothing deprivation, then, because they simply expected and needed less clothing. It would make sense to investigate a person’s claim that they needed clothing from the community, because people were used to wearing so little. Contrast this with a person’s claim of needing food assistance. Rav Yehudah makes the point that if a person is willing to beg for food from the community, they must truly be hungry. It’s demeaning and dangerous to demand that they await our investigation before we consent to feeding them.

Centuries later, however, in another hot climate (Egypt), Maimonides ruled according to Rav Yehuda and in favor of Rav Huna, with one important modification:

“When a poor person whose identity is unknown says: ‘I am hungry, provide me with food,’ we do not investigate whether he is a deceiver. Instead, we provide him with sustenance immediately. If he was unclothed and he said: ‘Cloth me,’ we investigate whether he is a deceiver. If we are familiar with him, we clothe him according to his honor immediately and we do not investigate the matter.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws Of Gifts To The Poor, 7:6)

Their different emphases notwithstanding, Rav Huna and Rav Yehudah also provided a common scriptural basis for their arguments, Isaiah 58:6–7, from the haftarah for Yom Kippur morning:

“This is the fast I (God) desire…

It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe them,
And not to ignore your own kin.”

While a measure of judiciousness is permitted before doling out tzedakah, from Isaiah to Maimonides, we’re reminded of the supreme Jewish imperative to leave no poor and needy person behind.

Read all of Bava Batra 9 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 4, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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