Providing What is Lacking

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

Anyone who has been responsible for allocating funds knows that the definition of “need” is a slippery one. This article explores the implications of Jewish tradition’s surprising call to match an assessment of what a tzedakah recipient needs to that person’s own circumstances, rather than to a universal standard.

In biblical times, the needs of the poor were provided for primarily through agricultural gifts. The biblical concept of giving one tenth of one’s produce to charity (ma’aser, or tithing), however, was mainly for the support of the Levites serving in the ancient Temple; only twice in seven years a tithe was given to the poor. The book of Deuteronomy imposes a more general obligation to provide for the needs of the poor:


“When there is among you a poor person, among your kin, in one of your cities, in your land which the Lord your God gives you, do not harden your heart, do not close your fist from your poor kin: Rather, you shall surely open your hand, and make him a loan, sufficient for his need, whatever he lacks” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

Although this passage specifically refers to providing a loan, it is understood by rabbinic tradition as applying to all kinds of support for the poor. The ambiguity of the requirement is troubling: how is one to determine what a poor person lacks?

Real Needs

The rabbis saw the repetition of “his need (mahsoro)” and “whatever he lacks (yehsar)”–the root of the words is indeed the same–as indicating that the “lack” referred to must be determined according to the individual, and not according to a general rule. An early rabbinic midrash (Midrash Tannaim to Deuteronomy 15) teaches:

1. “Sufficient for his need: you are commanded to keep him/her alive, but you are not commanded to enrich him.

empty wallet2. “Whatever he lacks: everything is according to his sense of dignity, even a horse to ride upon and a servant to run before him. They said about Hillel [an early rabbinic sage] that he bought for a needy child from a wealthy family a horse to ride upon and a servant to run before him. Once he could not find a servant to run before him, and [Hillel] ran before him for three miles.

3. “Once people from the Upper Galilee provided for a needy child from a formerly wealthy family a pound of meat every day.”

The first tradition places a limit on “need”; one does not enrich the poor. The second tradition, which expansively includes maintaining and even restoring lost dignity, seems to contradict the first; having a horse and a slave was the ancient equivalent of a chauffeur-driven limousine. Would that not be considered “enriching”?

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).

The distinction between bread, dough and money is significant. Bread is immediately useful, but it becomes stale. Raw dough requires more work, but it can become a sourdough starter and be used to bake many loaves. Money requires even more work, but it is the best store of value.  One should provide only what is needed; providing too much can actually be a less efficient way to help, and it disempowers the needy person.

According to R. Sirkes, however, efficiency is not the only factor. Sirkes states that the help needs to be provided “to him,” according to his desires and not according to the donor’s sense of efficiency or value. Sirkes points towards the ideal obligation to meet the needs and even the desires of the individual.

Wants vs. Needs

The needs of the poor are maximally understood as preventive tzedakah, that is, providing training, health care, and affordable housing so that a person does not need additional support. But short of that goal, should people dependent on public support be entitled to what many consider to be “luxuries” as part of  “whatever he lacks” or according to “his sense of dignity”? The passage quoted from Midrash Tannaim says, “you are not commanded to enrich him.”

The story of Hillel teaches that we should maintain the dignity of the poor, but does that mean providing a car instead of public transportation? When many who are working and supporting themselves remain without insurance, is health care a luxury? In modern times, a lack of an education almost inevitably leads to impoverishment, so education is clearly a need and not a luxury. But is Jewish day school education a necessity? How far do we take Rabbi Sirkes’ concerns to accommodate the desires of the needy?

Midrash Tannaim states that one who stays over Shabbat is provided with food for three meals, according to the religious obligation, even though one can survive on only two meals; mitzvot are considered needs. Similarly, providing for a Jewish education is a religious obligation and not a luxury.

The wisdom of Jewish tradition is in preserving the ideal obligation alongside the conventional application. Conventional laws for tzedakah change with time, with the local economy, and with communal expectations; the poor of the first world are hardly comparable to the poor of the third world or the poor of ancient times. But while the conventional standards continue to change (hopefully towards providing greater and more enduring forms of support), the ideals remain constant. Our obligation to the poor is to provide what they need to the full extent of our abilities.

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