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To the poor person who is with you

To the poor person who is with you

The ma'aser ani year gives us an opportunity to understand the status of the poor in our society, our attitude towards poor people, and Hashem's attitude towards them. This article sheds light on these issues.

Rabbi Gabi Kadosh

In honor of the ma’aser ani year

 This year of 5781, the sixth year in the shemita cycle, is a year of ma’aser ani. We are fortunate to have Torah commandments such as ma’aser ani that enable us increase our acts of charity and loving kindness, mitzvot upon which the world is built, as our Sages teach us: “The world is built on loving kindness.”[1] Additionally, in expounding on the verse “את העני עמך,” “… and the poor person who is with you” (Exod. 22:24), the Midrash describes the unique closeness that the poor man shares with G-d:

[G-d says:] “The poor person is not with you, but rather he is with Me.” And so said [King] David (Psalms 18:28): “For You, a poor nation (am ani, [2] עם עני)” do You save.” The ways of G-d are not like the ways of man. The way of man is such that one who is wealthy and has a poor relative does not acknowledge him. [When] he sees his [poor] relative, he hides from him, for he is ashamed to speak with him because he is poor … But if one is wealthy, everyone clings to him and loves him, as it states (Proverbs 14:20:): “But the lovers of the rich are many.” But G-d is not so. [On the contrary] Who are His people? The poor. He sees a poor person, and clings to him … as it states (Isaiah 66:2): “But it is to this that I [G-d] look to the poor person,” and so said Moshe to the Jewish People (Deuteronomy 7:7) “Not because you are more numerous did G-d desire you” and it states: “for you are the fewest of all the peoples.” And when G-d is reconciled to Zion, on whom will He have mercy first? On the poor, as it states (Isaiah 14:32): “G-d has established Zion, and in it the poor of His people take shelter.”[3]

From the above we learn about G-d’s special attitude towards the poor. However, is the fact that there are poor people in the world an unavoidable reality? Must poor people exist in order to enable us to exhibit lovingkindness in the world? Does there have to be a portion of society that is poor so that others can increase their own merits?

The commandment to give ma’aser ani is recorded twice in the Torah; each time with a different textual emphasis:

  • In Parshat Re’eh: “… you must bring out all the tithes of that year’s crop, and place them in your settlements. The Levite shall then come… along with the foreigner, orphan, and widow.[4]
  • In Parshat Ki-Tavo: “… you must give them [the tithes] to the Levite, and to the foreigner, orphan, and widow.”[5]

The difference in wording between the two verses leads the Gemara[6] to conclude that the first verse is referring to the ma’aser ani a person distributes in his field, hence the term “place them,” while the second verse is referring to ma’aser ani a person distributes in his home, hence the term “give them.”

This tithe is not the property of the owner of the produce, who must leave it in the field; it belongs to the poor. In the event that the produce is not collected by the poor, then the owner of the field may take the tithe to his home and physically give it to poor people. Unlike teruma and terumat ma’aser given to the Kohen and ma’aser rishon, the Levite's tithe, which are given “in exchange for their work, the service that they perform in the Communion Tent,”[7] ma’aser ani (like other Torah-mandated gifts to the poor) is given to the poor without requiring him to do anything in return. For this reason the Torah formulates the commandment using the phrase “leave” – “[you must] leave them for the poor and the stranger.”[8]

In attempt to fully understand the meaning behind giving ma’aser ani, we will look closely at the fascinating discussion between Rabbi Akiva and the evil Roman governer, Turnus Rufus:[9]

It is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Meir would say: An opponent may bring an argument against you and say to you: If your G-d loves the poor, for what reason does He not support them Himself? In such a case, say to him: He commands us to act as His agents in sustaining the poor, so that through them we will be credited with the performance of mitzvot and therefore be saved from the judgment of Gehinom. And this is the question that Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Akiva: If your G-d loves the poor, for what reason does He not support them Himself? Rabbi Akiva said to him: He commands us to sustain the poor, so that through them and the charity we give them we will be saved from the judgment of Gehinom.
Turnus Rufus said to Rabbi Akiva: On the contrary, it is this charity which condemns you, the Jewish people, to Gehinom because you give it. I will illustrate this to you with a parable. To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to a king of flesh and blood who was angry with his slave and put him in prison and ordered that he should not be fed or given to drink. And one person went ahead and fed him and gave him to drink. If the king heard about this, would he not be angry with that person? And you, after all, are called slaves, as it is stated: “For the children of Israel are slaves to Me” (Levit. 25:55). If G-d decreed that a certain person should be impoverished, one who gives him charity defies the will of G-d.
Rabbi Akiva said to Turnus Rufus: I will illustrate the opposite to you with a different parable. To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to a king of flesh and blood who was angry with his son and put him in prison and ordered that he should not be fed or given to drink. And one person went ahead and fed him and gave him to drink. If the king heard about this once his anger abated, would he not react by sending that person a gift? And we are called sons, as it is written: “You are sons of the Lord your G-d” (Deut. 14:1).

It would seem that the difference between the two parables—the first, of Turnus Rufus the wicked; and the second, of Rabbi Akiva—lies in the dissimilarity between Judaism’s unique understanding of charity and lovingkindness, versus that of other nations. According to the commonly accepted attitude among other nations, the relationship between a person’s efforts for his livelihood and the extent of his actual success is an implicit given. Being that the king decreed not to feed the slave, it is hence forbidden to act against this decree. Therefore, one who attempts to feed this slave is, in effect, defying the will of the king. Judaism’s outlook, however, is very different. G-d Himself, the Master of the Universe most definitely was the One who created poverty within human society, but He also gave us the capability to alter His decrees. Through the means of our lovingkindness and acts of charity, we have the power to change the will of the King. For this reason, Rabbi Akiva demonstrates in his parable that our relationship with G-d is likened to that of a father and son. Despite the father’s desire to carry out his will, as it were, deep down he recognizes that “my children have triumphed over me”[10] and that his desire could change, like the words of the Midrash: “We have not time in which we can come forcibly and demand reward from G-d except for when we properly remove our tithes from our produce.”[11]

However, there is an even deeper and more comprehensive outlook on the commandment of charity. In the same Gemara quoted above (Bava Batra 10a) the following is taught as well:

As it is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa says: Anyone who turns his eyes away from one seeking charity is considered as if he worships idols. From where is this derived? It is written here: “Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart … and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing” (Deuteronomy 15:9). And it is written there: “Certain base men have gone out … and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’” (Deut. 13:14). Just as there, the base men sin with idolatry, so too here, the base thought is treated like idolatry.

From here we learn that G-d wants to increase charity and lovingkindness in the world, and mankind should not think that by giving charity to the poor he is defying G-d’s original intention. On the contrary: in this Gemara, the Sages are teaching us that ignoring a poor person seeking charity is akin to idol worship, since he apparently considers nature[12] to be the force that runs the world. Since such a person forgets that the Master of the Universe created the powers of nature and that He controls them, the person in qustion is considered an idol worshiper.

This concept is also learned from the teachings of the Beit HaLevi (in his written sermons),[13] when explaining the verse: “With you, O Lord, is the right (righteousness=tzedaka=charity), and the shame is on us …”[14] as it relates to the commandment of giving charity:

And we will say that the explanation of the verse is as follows: That in tractate Bava Batra (10a) it is recorded: “Rabbi Yoḥanan says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “He that graciously gives to the poor makes a loan to the Lord, and that which he has given, He will pay him back” (Proverbs 19:17)? [How can it be that one is considered to have granted a loan to G-d?] Were it not explicitly written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this, [that somebody who is gracious to a poor person is seen as lending to G-d. It would be impertinent, since] “the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7), as it were. This Gemara explains the verse, that “He who graciously gives the poor,” namely, that which one gives to a poor person is, in fact, a loan to G-d, and not to the poor man. And so it is written (on this same verse) in the Midrash (Levit. 34:2): “So said G-d: Upon Me it was to provide for him, and this one (man) came and provided for him …” And this is [the meaning of] the verse: “With You, O Lord is the right, and the shame is on us” (Daniel 9:7)—the charity that we give to the poor man, is not doing any favor for the poor man, for it is not to the poor man who we are giving to, but rather to Him, as it were. If this is so, then [when giving charity] we must accompany our giving with a positive mindset, like by [the performance of] all commandments. And if this is the case, then “the shame is on us” if we do not [give charity] with the appropriately positive mindset.

We learn then, from the words of the Beit HaLevi, that charity is not directed to the poor person, but rather to G-d. By giving charity, man fulfills the ultimate goal of creation by increasing the virtues of lovingkindness and goodness in the world, and thus forms a closer bond between the Jewish People and their Father in heaven.

From all of the above, we can now understand the continuation of the coversation between Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva:

Turnus Rufus said to him: You are called sons and you are called slaves. When you fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, you are called sons; when you do not fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, you are called slaves. And since now you do not fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, [the parable that I offered is more apt]. Rabbi Akiva said to him: The verse states: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you shall bring the poor that are cast out to your house?” (Isaiah 58:7). When do we bring the poor that are cast out into our houses? Now, [when we have to billet the Roman soldiers in our homes;] and [about that very time, the verse] states: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?”

According to Turnus Rufus, when the Jewish People fulfill the will of G-d, then they are considered His sons, and are able to perform the commandment of charity. Rabbi Akiva however, argues that the giving of charity is in and of itself the fulfillment of G-d’s will, and therefore even now we are deserving of being called His sons.

Yehi Ratzon, may it be Your will, Hashem our G-d, that “Your nation Israel not depend upon each other for sustenance, nor upon another nation.”[15] “Zion shall be saved in the judgment; Her repentant ones, in the retribution.”[16] And may we return to Zion with righteousness, and may our ears hear the voice of the herald say: “There shall be no needy among you.”[17]



[1] Psalms 89:3

[2] This is the literal meaning of the verse. The Midrash interprets the two words im ani as “with the poor person.”

[3] Shemot Raba 31:13

[4] Deut. 14: 28­-29

[5] Deut. 26:12

[6] Hulin 131b

[7] Numbers 18:21

[8] Levit. 19:10

[9] Bava Batra 10a

[10] Bava Metzia 59b

[11] Shemot Raba 41:1

[12] (And not G-d, translator’s addition)

[13] Responsa Beit HaLevi Vol. 1, Sermon 1. Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveichik (1820­-1892). His great-grandson, bearing the same name, became the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University.

[14] Daniel 9:7

[15] Ta’anit 24b

[16] Isaiah 1:27

[17] Deut. 15:4