Ketubot 68

Come and let us appreciate the swindlers.

On today’s daf, the rabbis drift from a conversation about the specific communal responsibility to provide for orphans who get married into a more general conversation about our obligations to support those in need. And it includes some words of rebuke for those who take charity under false pretenses:

One who receives charity and does not need it, his end will be that he will not depart from the world before he comes to this state (of needing charity).

If you don’t need charity and take it anyway, the Talmud tells us, you’ll eventually wind up poor. Although the notion that fate catches up to those who take charity dishonestly may not line up with your experience of the world, it’s easy to agree with the Talmud’s assertion that doing so is inherently wrong. Which is what makes this anecdote that begins near the end of yesterday’s daf so striking:

Rabbi Hanina knew a certain pauper and was accustomed to send him four dinars every Shabbat eve. One day he sent it in the hand of his wife. She came and said to him: “He does not need it.” 

Rabbi Hanina asked her: “What did you see?” 

She said to him: “I heard them saying to him, ‘With what do you dine: silver tablecloths or gold tablecloths?’”

Rabbi Hanina’s wife uncovers an uncomfortable truth: The poor family that her husband has been sending money to has fancy tablecloths, a sign that they are people of means and do not need regular support.

If this turn of events is unexpected, Rabbi Hanina’s response is even more so:

He said: “This is what Rabbi Elazar must have been talking about when he said: ‘Come and let us appreciate the swindlers, because were it not for them, we would be sinning every day.’”

The swindlers keep us from sinning? 

To make sense of this statement, it’s important to understand that the Torah considered the support of kinsmen in need to be a loan that must eventually be repaid. But to protect the unfortunate from falling too far into debt, the Torah prescribes that loans are to be canceled every seventh year. As you might anticipate, this might cause someone to turn a blind eye to a neighbor in need as the seventh year approaches as it is unlikely that such a loan will be repaid.

And so, the Torah warns in Deuteronomy 15:9:

Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and your eye be evil against your needy brother, and you will not give him; and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you.

How does this relate to our situation? Rabbi Elazar must have been aware that there were poor people whose needs were not being met. And, as this verse states, should they cry out to God against those who have not supported them, God would hold the community accountable. Thanks to the swindlers, however, the community can make an argument in its defense: Their inability to provide for the poor is a direct consequence of having been taken advantage of. Had the swindlers not taken a share of the available charitable funds, there would have been enough to support everyone in need.

If this sounds like a flimsy argument to you, you’re in good company. The Gemara follows this story with the statement of Rabbi Hiyya bar Rav of Difti, who quotes Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha:

Anyone who averts their eyes from charity, it is as if they have engaged in idol worship.

No, Rabbi Elazar, you can’t use the corruption of others as justification for your failure to support the poor. If you do, you’ll be held accountable, just as if you had engaged in idol worship.

Read all of Ketubot 68 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 12th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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