Eruvin 29

The dignity of the poor.

Today’s daf continues our discussion of creating an eruv with food. The Talmud explores which types of food may be used, and in what quantities, to establish an eruv. As part of the discussion, the Talmud veers into a discussion about support for the poor:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: When distributing poor man’s tithe, one must give each individual poor person at least an ukla, an eighth of a log, of spices, a liter of vegetables, ten nuts, five peaches, two pomegranates, and one citron, as these are worthy amounts for distribution.

Deuteronomy 14:28 mandates the distribution of tithes to the poor twice every seven-year cycle, a practice called ma’aser oni. In the teaching on today’s daf, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar lists the particular food items to which the poor are entitled as part of this tithe. These include spices, nuts, and a citron, which even then was understood to be a luxury item requiring huge amounts of irrigation and care. If you grow citrons, you are required to tithe them, and the poor are entitled to that tithe. Ma’aser oni thus provides not only sustenance to the poor, but the dignity of eating the same things as those of greater economic means.

The Talmud continues by citing another mishnah in which the rabbis continue to debate now much the poor must be given as part of ma’aser oni, at the end of which we encounter this fascinating teaching:

And with regard to all other fruit, Abba Shaul said: He must be given enough to sell them and buy food that suffices for two meals with the proceeds of their sale.

Abba Shaul’s statement adds a fascinating nuance – the poor person is apparently not even required to eat the food they are given! Instead, they can sell it and use the income to buy other food that is more to their taste.

The rabbinic discussion here is not actually about the poor – it is about the obligation of landowners to fulfill the mitzvah of ma’aser oni. And yet, this text tells us much about the rabbinic attitude toward the poor in general. The poor are entitled to the dignity of eating the same foods as the wealthy. And they are entitled to treat the tithe they are given as their own income.

If we read this text carefully, we can see that the rabbis are insisting not only that the poor are entitled to sustenance, but human dignity too. Their agency is to be respected and legally protected. For the rabbis on today’s daf, the poor are people and deserve to be treated as such.

Read all of Eruvin 29 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 7, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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