Regard for the Weak in Jewish Society
Regard for the weak, the poor and the needy is one of the foundations on which Judaism is based.
The beginning and foundations of this approach can be found in the Torah, in the first laws given to the people of Israel in the desert, after the giving of the Torah. The Biblical verses reiterate and emphasize the importance of support for the weaker groups of society:
Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. (Exodus 22:20-23)
For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:11-12)
These verses that raise the need for consideration for the poor and the foreigner, the orphan and the widow, are dispersed throughout the entire Torah, and have been determined as precepts that a man must fulfill. Since it is dealing with a society based on agriculture, the Torah determines that parts (sheaves of wheat that have fallen to the ground, a corner of a field, vineyard or orchard left unharvested) of the harvest should be left in the field for the poor to gather later on. Furthermore, the Torah determines that each person must give a ‘tithe for the poor’ once every three years, in the third and sixth year of the Shmitah cycle, in order to help support the poor. A crop from which a tithe has not been allocated is considered not fit (unkosher) to eat. Through these precepts, the need for help to the poor of society is transformed from an idea dependent on people’s kindheartedness and good, to law the requires a person to contribute part of his harvest and asset for the benefit of the poor.
The prophets of scripture, the classical prophets, who lived in the Land of Israel and prophesized in the Kingdoms of Judea and Israel, continued the path and spirit of the Torah and reiterated the call to the people of Israel and residents of the land to remember their poor brethren and neighbors - foreigners.
The prophet Amos voiced the cry of the oppressed and exploited:
This is what the Lord says: For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent; They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. (Amos 2:6)
This is what the Lord says to Israel: Seek me and live... There are those who turn justice into bitterness, and cast righteousness to the ground... There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Seek good, not evil, that you may live... Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5: 4-15)
The prophet Isaiah in chapter 58, determined by hazal as the haftorah for Yom Kippur, rejects the Yom Kippur fast as a substitute for involvement in and caring about society:
Shout it aloud, do not hold back, raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways. As if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. Why have we fasted, they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed? Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter: when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
From these prophesies it is evident that Israelite society in Biblical times failed to fulfill the precepts and demand that arise from the Torah, and that the voice of the prophets was needed in order to exhort the people and bring their attention to the plight of the poor.
Hazal continued in the path of the Torah and the prophets, expanding and deepening the emphasis on the importance of regard for the weaker elements of society. In the Halacha, Agaddah and Midrash, much attention is given to assisting one’s fellow man. The term coined was: Gemilut Hasadim (charity, literally meaning “the giving of loving-kindness)
The second Mishnah of the Avot tractate (Pirkei Avot), quotes the saying of Simeon the Righteous: On three things the world is sustained: on the Torah , on the (Temple) service, and on deeds of loving kindness. (Mishnah Avot 1, 2)
Along with the study of Torah and giving of sacrifices (service), Simeon the Righteous places Gemilut Hasadim as the third pillar on which society is founded (the world). This term embodies concern of a person for his fellow man in society. Charity is the special expression of assistance and support for the poor: Great is charity for it hastens the Redemption (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 10a).
This spirit placing help to the needy as a central pillar of society has gone hand in hand with the Jewish people throughout history.
Help for the needy on the Jewish holidays
Help for one’s fellow man and assistance for the needy are among the fundamentals of Judaism. One way of assimilating this matter in everyday life was incorporating precepts and customs connected with giving charity to the poor in the Jewish holidays. Indeed, most Jewish holidays include precepts and customs designed to emphasize help to the needy as one of the main values of the holiday.
Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right (Psalms 106:3).
Sitting in Rabbi Tarfon’s attic, and said: Who is he, who always does what is right?
Do you say they are the scholars and teachers, who neither eat nor drink nor sleep?!
Or rather they are the scribes of teffilin and mezzuzot, who neither eat nor drink nor sleep?!
Who is he, who always does what is right?
- obviously, one who raises an orphan within his home. Do you say without rolling over naked at night?! [In other words, if the orphan’s blanket comes off and he is sleeping naked and is cold, the person raising him has not performed charity at that time because he was sleeping and did not care for the child?!]
They said we still need Modai.
R. Eleazar Modai came and taught: The Torah spoke of nothing more than the bread he eats in his home.
Blessed are those who act justly – this is Mordechai.
Who always do what is right – who has raised an orphan in his home.