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Investigating Tzedakah Requests: A Talmudic Inquiry

Do we respond immediately to a claim of dire need, or perform

The Babylonian Talmud records a discussion about whether to investigate the claim of a seeker of tzedakah. It revolves around a distinction between one person who claims to be in need of clothing and another who claims to be in need of food. In this excerpt (quoted below) two third-century Babylonian sages agree only that one claimant is to be believed, while the other’s claim must be investigated.  But the two take opposite positions about which is which. Following the Talmud passage, we present the words of two contemporary readers, who mine the debate for its considerable contemporary relevance.

Reprinted with permission from Seeing Need, Envisioning Change: A Ta Shma Conversation Piece in Memory of Charles Schusterman, edited by Leon Wiener-Dow, © Ta Shma: Pluralistic Jewish Learning, 2001 

The Talmudic Debate

“Rav Huna said: We examine [the person who has requested] food, but we do not examine [the person who has requested] clothing. If you wish, you may say that this teaching is derived from a biblical verse; or, if you prefer, you may say that it is formulated on the basis of reason:

charity money“If you wish, you may say that it is formulated on the basis of reason, for in one case [that of clothing], the person is shamed, but in the other case [that of food], the person is not shamed. 

“Or, if you prefer, you may derive it from a biblical verse, as it is written, ‘It is to share (peros) your bread with the hungry [that God wants]’ (Isaiah 58:7). — Since peros (‘to share’) is read with the letter sin, the word suggests examining the person’s need, and only then giving him [bread]; and in the second part of the same verse, it is written, ‘…[W]hen you see the naked, clothe him’ — the phrase ‘when you see him’ implies immediately upon seeing him.

[The verb peros, to share, can be spelled in two ways; with a samekh or sin as the final letter.  Spelled (“read”) with a sin, the root is the same as for perush, explanation.  Ed.]

“Rav Yehudah said: We examine [the person who has requested] clothing, but we do not examine [the person who has requested] food. If you wish, you may say that this teaching is derived from a biblical verse; or, if you prefer, you may say that it is derived based on reason:

“If you wish, you may say that it is formulated on the basis of reason, for in one case [that of food], the person incurs suffering, but in the other case [that of clothing], the person does not suffer.

“Or, if you prefer, you may derive it from a biblical verse, as it is written, ‘It is to share (peros) your bread with the hungry [that God wants] (Isaiah 58:7).’ – Since peros (‘to share’) is written with the letter samekh, the phrase implies, ‘Give [the hungry] bread immediately;’ and in the second part of the same verse, it is written,  ‘… [W]hen you see the naked, clothe him’ — which suggests only after you have seen [and appraised his neediness].

“We have a tanaitic authority [that is, an authoritative, Mishnah-period rabbinic source] that affirms Rav Yehudah’s position:  ‘If he said: Provide me clothing — you examine [his need]; but if he says: Provide me food — you do not examine [his need].”    (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 9a)

Mimi Feigelson’s Response: Whose Sorrow, Whose Shame?

Many times I have learned this sugyah [edited discussion] in the Talmud, and I must confess that to a certain degree it remained academic. It was important for me to understand the rationale behind the rabbis’ opinions, and I could even engage in a conversation that attempted to nurture the juxtaposition of “sorrow” and “shame.” I could ask myself questions that attempt to equate and even evaluate “sorrow” and “shame”. Until now, I felt I had the luxury to ask questions like those the rabbis themselves asked — searching for proof texts from the Scriptures to support their opinion. I have come to a time that such a luxury cannot be acceptable. There is too much suffering in the world, too many homeless, too many hungry for this question to stay on the page of the Talmud, or within the context of the Jewish community alone. I see too many of these people stare me in the eye every time I turn on the television. I have flicked past too many television stations in shame trying to avoid these eyes.

There is a hasidic teaching that I feel comes to explain my discomfort with the sugyah. It takes the form of a comment on these verses: “And Ya‘akov [Jacob] took a vow, saying: ‘If God is with me and guards me on this way that I am walking, and gives me food to eat and a garment to wear, and I return in peace to the house of my father, then the Lord will be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21). Rabbi Moshe Hayim Efra’im of Sotllikov asks a simple question: Why does the verse tell us “food to eat and a garment to wear” when clearly food is for eating and garments are for wearing? And to this he responds, “There will come a time when food will be used to trade for clothes and clothes will be used to trade for food. The world Ya‘akov is aspiring to is a world where food is for eating and garments are for wearing”. There was a time in our history that for a piece of bread people were willing to sell their coat, their shoes or any other garment they still had; there was a time in our history that for a pair of shoes people would give up their daily ration of bread. There are many people, for similar or other reasons, who are in this situation today.

So I find myself asking: why are these the two examples that the rabbis bring when trying to create a system for allocating funds? Are they not bringing us back to Ya‘akov’s prayer after having a glimpse of the ladder that indeed connects heaven and earth? And furthermore I find myself asking: when trying to evaluate “shame” and “sorrow,” whose shame and sorrow are we talking about? Are we talking about the shame or sorrow of those who are in need or, perhaps, are we asking about the shame and sorrow that ought to be felt by those who have created such realities and allow them to be perpetuated?

And to what extent do we find ourselves on both sides of the equation– as those who have the ability to give and as those who are in need? What are your garments — what clothes you when you go out into the world? What is your food  — what nourishes and nurtures you? Are you capable of asking for what you need? How do you share what you have?

Leon Wiener-Dow’s Response: The Seen and the Unseen

The essential mahloket, or argument, between Rav Huna and Rav Yehudah regards the nature of the seen and the unseen in human experience. Amazingly, Rav Huna claims that we suffer most when we lack the clothing with which we cover ourselves, and not the food that we ingest. The seen — the outwardly apparent — comprises the essential human experience. Precisely for this reason, we as givers must forfeit our ability to judge based on outward appearance. According to Rav Huna’s reading, the biblical injunction is to provide clothing immediately upon seeing our naked neighbor, before we ourselves can discern whether, in our perception, he or she is in need. Precisely because perception is so important in human interaction, the giver forfeits his or her right to subject the needy to scrutiny.

Rav Yehudah, by contrast, places primacy on that which comes before perception, lying beyond it. True suffering, he asserts, is physical in nature; emotional damage which we endure when, for example, our peer sees us naked, is real, but it pales in comparison to the raw pain suffered by a body which simply does not have enough nourishment to sustain itself. According to Rav Huna, the immediacy of this suffering demands immediacy of action. The giver refrains from assessing the recipients needs not because of the presumption involved in doing so, but rather because of (a) the urgency of providing help, and (b) his or her inability to accurately assess the need, given the imperceptible nature of the suffering.

[You might argue that we should investigate all potential recipients.] I would respond, however, that Rav Huna and Rav Yehudah’s admonitions must continue to echo for us. Are there times when sensitivity in giving requires us to sacrifice, or at lease compromise, the efficiency of our giving? Perhaps these questions of sensitivity arise only on the smaller scale, however, and at the larger scale of philanthropy, Rav Huna’s and Rav Yehudah’s challenges are irrelevant.

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