Giving charity is one of the most important obligations in Judaism, but it is also deeply problematic. While giving bread to a beggar can relieve his or her hunger, it also creates moral and ethical dilemmas by concretizing the beneficiary’s social inferiority – labelling them a “charity case,” in today’s parlance. To address these problems, the rabbis of Roman Palestine set forth a vision of charity whereby the community as a whole gives through two institutions – the soup kitchen (tamhui) and the charity fund (quppa). Organized charity, which enables collective and anonymous giving, was distinct from Greco-Roman forms of aid and would become a hallmark of Jewish ethics. In my recent book, The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism, I examine the beginnings of collective, communal, and institutionalized almsgiving. Departing from conventional views that point to Second Temple-era predecessors, I find no pre-rabbinic sources on institutionalized giving to the poor. After examining what we can know about poverty in Roman Palestine, I undertake a close reading of the earliest rabbinic texts – the so-called the Tannaitic corpus of legal (Mishnah and Tosefta) and exegetical (Tannaitic Midrashim) compilations from the early third century C.E. I place early rabbinic ideas within their historical contexts and draw upon anthropology, economics, ethics, and other areas of inquiry to show how institutionalizing charity enables control over the allocation and distribution of goods. The rabbis envision the soup kitchen as a way to satisfy the poor’s basic physiological needs, without burdening them with debt or subordinating them to social dependency. The charity fund addresses the semiotics of poverty, as it restores impoverished individuals to their previous social standing by replacing objects that signal poverty with those that mark wealth. The rabbis instruct the charity supervisor to collect contributions as a mandatory tax and, like a judge, assess the claims of the poor. Whereas Christians (as Peter Brown has shown) and later Jews would use organized charity to promote their own religious authority, I argue that it was originally formulated by the early rabbis or Tannaim to protect the dignity of the poor. Institutionalized giving creates an alternative to begging that benefits the community as a whole – poor and non-poor alike.
Complementing my book, I have also published a number of studies on other topics related to poverty, charity, and giving. “Who is Rich? The Poor in Early Rabbinic Judaism” (Jewish Quarterly Review 104 ) for example, demonstrates that the Tannaim tended to be well-off, as they formulated their ideas from a socio-economic distance from the poor and from the perspective of benefactors (as opposed to recipients). In other studies, I have explored individual giving, the relationship between charity and euergetism (Hellenistic civic benefaction), the rabbis’ concern for a beggar’s dignity, allocations of produce to the poor at the harvest (e.g. pe’ah, gleanings), and other topics (see https://ubc.academia.edu/GreggGardner).
The study of poverty and charity in ancient Judaism brings with it a number of methodological challenges. First, given the topic, it is important to investigate the social and economic realities of the time and place in which the rabbis formulated their ideas. Rabbinic texts, however, are highly problematic as sources for social history. As others have pointed out, they were not intended as historiography, do not reliably preserve older material, and depict social and economic phenomena as viewed by an elite minority. The non- or extra-rabbinic sources for late antique Jewish society are limited. For large swaths of the period, such as the second and third centuries C.E. (when Tannaitic texts took shape), we have relatively few remains from Jewish society in Roman Palestine, especially compared to the earlier Second Temple era. Some attribute the scarcity to the ancient Jews themselves, arguing that they failed to produce a material culture that was recognizably Jewish. Others point to difficulties in interpreting the finds, including the challenges of dating remains to a narrow period and obstruction of earlier remains by later occupation and use. For research on poverty and charity in particular, there is the additional problem of trying to identify remains of precisely those individuals (i.e. the poor) who are defined by their lack of material possessions. At best, we can sketch the general contours of the social and economic environment of Roman Palestine to shed some light on the contexts in which the rabbis formulated their ideas on poverty and charity.
Second, the academic study of poverty and charity in ancient Judaism, and rabbinic literature in particular, has been hindered by modern apologetics. Rabbinic literature is a corpus of living texts that has significant value for Jews today. In some ways, this is a strength, as these texts – and their views – continue to resonate and can be used to provoke critical thinking and discussions on philanthropy. At the same time, because classical rabbinic literature undergirds Jewish ethics to this day, many would like to see the earliest rabbis as paragons of altruism and empathy. This, however, unfairly holds up the ancient rabbis to modern standards of moral and ethical conduct. It obscures the fact that rabbinic discussions were intended to elucidate the law more so than remedy social ills (though these two objectives need not be mutually exclusive). The famous instruction in Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1 that one must leave at least one-sixtieth of the harvest for the poor as pe’ah (produce left unharvested in the “corner” of a field) is one such example. It is customary to read this text as an exhortation for one to give as much as one can, as an effort by the rabbis to deliberately create an opportunity for supererogation – to go above and beyond the call of duty. What is often lost, however, is the most straightforward sense of the text – namely, that it defines a minimum amount that one must leave for the poor in order to fulfill the commandment. This minimum, moreover, is a particularly small amount – the Tannaim themselves define one-sixtieth as a miserly sum (e.g. Mishnah Terumot 4:3). The Dead Sea Scrolls, by contrast, set the minimum at twice that amount – one-thirtieth. This is not to say that the rabbis were uninterested in helping the poor; rather, they showed far more interest in the poor and their plight than most other authors and thinkers in the Roman world. The earliest rabbis were simply not as altruistic as many people today would like them to be.
Third, terminology and ethical concepts present a number of methodological challenges. For example, the English word “charity,” has a broad range of meanings, including love, kindness, affection, generosity, spontaneous goodness, a lenient disposition, and benevolence. The way that “charity” has been used by scholars, therefore, has differed greatly from one study to the next. Some have used “charity” to denote any action or attitude that is good or morally worthwhile. By contrast, in my historical studies, I define “charity” in line with the Tannaitic understanding of tsedaqah (also a complex term) as the provision of material support for the living poor (Tosefta Pe’ah 4:19). Because of the variety of uses of key terms like charity, it has been challenging for scholars to interact or build on each other’s work. A potential way forward would be to make use of the significant work by specialists of ethics, who have developed nuanced understandings of “charity”, “justice”, and other concepts. Similarly, it would be worthwhile to draw upon studies in economics that model and explore different forms of poverty, as well as altruism and giving.
In short, a great deal of progress in the study of poverty and charity has been made in recent years, especially by the contributors to this forum. Much, however, remains to be done. Future work could include new investigations into rabbinic literature’s approaches to individual giving, to complement studies on collective charity. Also needed are new studies on rabbinic attitudes towards wealth that would complement the recent work on Christianity by Peter Brown. These studies could be written in ways that make them accessible to those who do not specialize in ancient Judaism, so that our work can contribute to the growing body of multidisciplinary scholarship on philanthropy.
Dr. Gregg Gardner is Associate Professor and the Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at he University of British Columbia.
 Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012).
 Brown, Through the Eye; Peter Brown, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).