Rabbinic charity is a subject that has attracted increasing levels of scholarly interest since the beginning of this still new century. Charitable giving takes place within cultural and social frameworks, whether individual donors contribute alms or communal institutions organize charity systems. These contexts informed the rabbis’ explanations of poverty and perceptions of the poor, shaping rabbinic models of giving. Therefore, in my research on Palestinian rabbinic approaches to charity, I go beyond the study of charity per se by examining rabbinic concepts of poverty and the poor as well as the cultural and social factors that are reflected in their literary corpus, particularly the works that were compiled up to the late fifth century CE in the Land of Israel: the Mishnah, the Tosefta, tannaitic midrashim, the Jerusalem Talmud (the Yerushalmi), Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, and Pesiqta de Rab Kahana.
In my book, Poverty, Charity and the Image of the Poor in Rabbinic Texts from the Land of Israel, I identify four factors that shaped Palestinian rabbinic approaches to poverty and charity. First, the biblical heritage. For the rabbis, the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) was an articulation of God’s word and, therefore, holy. As such it served as the basis for any discussion or ruling in rabbinic texts. Second, beyond their conceptualization of that biblical framework, the texts that I discuss in that volume were primarily composed and assembled when Jews in Palestine were living under Roman rule (which gradually became Christian after Constantine). In that context, Palestinian rabbis negotiated the biblical command to care for the poor with Greco-Roman notions of hierarchy, benefaction, and patronage. The main stream of rabbinic discourse on charity suggests an ideological rejection of prevailing Greco-Roman hierarchical norms; on the other hand, those norms influenced how almsgiving is described in rabbinic texts. That effect is evident irrespective of the position being conveyed, whether a rabbinic source opposes Greco-Roman frameworks, suggests alternative models, or represents charitable approaches that in some way reflect Greco-Roman practices. Among the examples for this phenomenon is the rabbinic dispute over the poor man’s tithe and, especially, the degree of agency that householders could exercise regarding its recipients. In the Greco-Roman world, such control was an essential element in patronage and reciprocal relationships among peers: food distribution played a key role in establishing patron-client relationships and other mutually beneficial associations. Halakhic debates on this tithe expose a dynamic process through which the poor man’s tithe was modified, and ultimately transformed, to meet Greco-Roman norms of reciprocal relationships. The third factor is the adherence by sages from the Land of Israel to “measure for measure” as a key hermeneutical principle that underscores a direct connection between behavior and consequence. This principle has implications for explaining the poverty of individuals who fell from wealth and as a strategy for convincing people to give charity. The fourth factor is the effect of familiarity with involuntary poverty in rabbinic circles (namely rabbis and students, plus their families and friends) on how the authors of Palestinian rabbinic literature viewed issues of poverty and charity. Within the scholarly debate on the socio-economic status of the rabbis, I contend that a survey of the sources indicates that, for Palestinian rabbis, the poor were not necessarily outsiders, nor did those rabbis see themselves as shielded from the danger of becoming poor.
Considering these factors, I studied several dimensions of rabbinic charity. A critical aspect of this research is the reality that there is more than one model of rabbinic charity and more than one opinion recorded on many issues. Rabbinic texts must thereby be investigated according to their time and place of origin, their socio-economic and political influences, as well as their cultural and religious environments. Thus, close attention should be devoted to textual distinctions between: tannaitic and amoraic compositions, rabbinic texts from the Land of Israel and the Babylonian Talmud, and later texts that were influenced by the Babylonian Talmud.
Nevertheless, even among tannaitic texts one can identify more than one model of charity. In “‘Even a Horse, Even a Slave’?: The Provision of Personal Needs versus the Application of Uniform Standards in Rabbinic Almsgiving,” I demonstrate that the Mishnah and the Tosefta present different prescriptions for determining eligibility for charity. Although Mishnah Peah 8:7-9 suggests uniform criteria on the basis of economic conditions, Tosefta Peah 4:10 considers each poor person according to the lifestyle that preceded impoverishment. Thus, even when the gifts are extremely generous – where poor members of noble families are concerned – there is an obligation to restore the poor to their previous standing. Both of these models respond to the biblical command to provide for the poor and to Greco-Roman approaches to giving: the Tosefta’s model is more closely aligned with the Greco-Roman system of distributions, where people with high status often received more than those with low status; the Mishnah’s model prescribes the inverse formula, where those with less should receive more. In the Mishnah, no mention is made of the poor from wealthy families. This example shows that, rather than complementing each other, tannaitic texts can offer contrasting views, in this case about the distribution of charitable resources, whether communal or private.
For the remainder of this survey, I turn to two additional issues which are central to this study. In my investigation of the Palestinian rabbinic approach to this subject, I compare the Babylonian Talmud with texts from the Land of Israel to document that poverty is viewed differently in rabbinic material from these two rabbinic centers. Unlike the Babylonian Talmud, sources from the Land of Israel lack any analogy between ordinary poverty and death, nor do they consider material assets a requirement for receiving the presence of the Shekhinah. Moreover, according to the Yerushalmi, wealth and poverty are human categories that have no meaning for God. The perspectives in each corpus are congruent with the causes of poverty as understood in their respective majority milieu. In the Babylonian Talmud, poverty is often linked to specific transgressions and forms of misconduct, with the assumption that the poor are culpable for their economic circumstances as a result of their prior actions. It is also possible that Babylonian rabbis describe poverty as a punishment in order to deter their audience from particular behaviors. In any case, texts from these two rabbinic centers consistently present their own distinct concepts of poverty: sources from the Land of Israel generally view poverty as punishment for inappropriate actions in the sphere of almsgiving, or as an unfortunate reality that no family can avoid. While several Babylonian texts link poverty to one's prenatal or astrological lot, many others associate poverty with a long list of misdeeds, including failure to maintain the cleanliness of one’s home. These differences can be attributed to the cultures in which these sages lived and to their socio-economic positions within each of those two Jewish communities. Thus, in Roman Palestine, where the rabbis may have known a poor peer or student (without a drastic transition from wealth to poverty), the texts are less inclined to link ordinary poverty with an array of sins. However, the contrasting commitment to the principle of “measure for measure” in this pair of rabbinic centers should not be underestimated. In the Land of Israel, the emphasis on the close relationship between behavior and consequence first appeared in tannaitic traditions and its influence continued in amoraic sources: according to this reasoning, falling from wealth into poverty was principally linked to misconduct in almsgiving (or, in several cases, to specific sins that are not detailed). In Babylonia, on the other hand, since “measure for measure” was not as central in rabbinic thought, the intellectual environment allowed for more varied interpretations of and presumed causes for poverty.
The relationship between rabbinic sources and historical realities is another key factor in this area of inquiry. First, rabbinic literature does not aim to provide historical documentation, but rather to offer moral religious teachings. Furthermore, it is often unclear whether these texts describe the practices of their time or an aspirational model. Actual and idealized praxis each pertain to the study of rabbinic perspectives on poverty and the poor, as well as on ways of coping with social inequity. The degree to which rabbinic texts may serve as historical sources for the assessment of attitudes in the broader Jewish society of their time is an additional consideration. Unfortunately, texts that might inform us about non-rabbinic Jewish thinking on poverty and charity from the second to fifth centuries CE in Palestine are practically nonexistent. Therefore, beyond what has been transmitted in rabbinic sources, we have little evidence of the general Jewish population. Yet, on the basis of contextualized data, I suggest that at least some of the notions and practices mentioned in this corpus seem to have been accepted and engaged beyond rabbinic circles. The importance of caring for the poor is fundamental to biblical thinking and emerges in multiple Jewish sources from the Second Temple period, such as Ben Sira and Tobit. This theme is also prominent in the New Testament. Thus, it is likely that placing primacy on the value of assisting the poor was not limited to the rabbis. Although we may safely assume that not everyone gave readily upon request, even among the rabbis, I would nevertheless assert that these notions were well established.
Dr. Yael Wilfand Ben-Shalom is department member at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Centre Paul-Albert Février.
 Yael Wilfand, Poverty, Charity and the Image of the Poor in Rabbinic Texts from the Land of Israel (Social World of Biblical Antiquity, Second Series, 9; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014).
 For more details, see Yael Wilfand, “From the School of Shammai to Rabbi Yehuda the Patriarch's Student: The Evolution of the Poor Man's Tithe.” Jewish Studies Quarterly 22 (2015), p. 36-61.
 Yael Wilfand, “‘Even a Horse, Even a Slave’?: The Provision of Personal Needs versus the Application of Uniform Standards in Rabbinic Almsgiving,” in Pursuing Justice: Society and Economy in Jewish Sources (eds. Hanoch Dagan and Benjamin Porat; Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, 2016), p. 369-399, [Hebrew].