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Matanot aniyim, Preface: Matanot aniyim as a model for social policy: "In justice shall you be established"

Matanot aniyim, Preface: Matanot aniyim as a model for social policy: "In justice shall you be established"

How do matanot aniyim help propel the poor out of the circle of poverty towards taking initiative and personal responsibility? An overview of the Torah's unique system to promote a just and compassionate society, based on personal obligation. Rabbi Azriel Ariel

Hilchot Ha'aretz, pp. 209–213


Every year the public debate about the poverty line is raised and rehashed. Tens of thousands of families and young children are in dire financial straits. As a charitable nation, Israeli society examines and reexamines itself, assessing whether it has done for the disadvantaged strata of society. Moreover, an extensive system of social legislature ensures that the rights of this group are protected[1].

  1. Obligation vs. right

When we examine the Torah's mitzvot, we see a salient theme. The Torah is full of commandments to provide financial assistance to the socially disadvantaged. Aside from all of the mitzvot that require performing acts of loving kindness to fellow Jews, we are also obligated in a long list of matanot aniyim, gifts to the poor: leket, shichecha, pe'ah, peret, olelot, ma'aser ani, loans, and charity. While all legislation in the modern world is instituted to protect the rights of the weaker groups in society, the recipients, the Torah deals primarily with the obligations of the giver. Farmers need to leave leket, shichecha, and pe'ah; everyone needs to give charity and separate ma'aser ani. The poor person does not have the right to demand these gifts, however. It seems that this difference between Torah law and other legislative systems is much greater than a simple matter of semantics: it expresses a clear Torah outlook on how to approach the problem of poverty.

As a result of the emphasis being on the giver, we see that the Torah's charity system is not government-centered. While it too has been institutionalized to a certain extent, and has become an integral part of the public sphere, to the extent that "we have never seen or heard of a Jewish community that does not have a charity fund,"[2] this charity fund has never been institutionalized beyond the local community level (or at most, the regional level). It is possible to view this as an organizational weakness of a nation that lacked its own government, but this is not so! "The poor of one's city take precedence"[3] is an halacha that is lechatchila, not bedi'avad. The state can look after the rights of the disadvantaged, but it cannot force the strong segments of society to give. At most, it can tax citizens, but it does not have the power to force givers to give charity from their heart. The smaller community, in contrast, runs a charity fund based on volunteerism. The halacha of "forcing charity"[4] stems from the giver's obligation, but not the recipient's right.[5] This charity is not even part of the community taxes or of mutual security, systems where people do not feel that they are performing acts of loving kindness with their fellow Jews.

  1. Altruistic giving

The Torah does not attempt to eliminate poverty at a time that the world has not yet reached its complete rectification. It even informs us that "there will never cease to be needy ones in your land" (Devarim 15:11). The purpose of the perpetuation of poverty is to facilitate good deeds and kindness in the world. It is for this reason that there are people in this world who are in need, and they afford others with the opportunity to give.[6] The social rectification in a situation in which there is mutual giving and loving kindness is much greater than one where there is abundance, but estrangement—where no one is in need of assistance, but then again, no one needs to provide any.

For this reason, an integral part of the mitzvah of charity is to give it with a smile, with joy, and with brotherly love.[7] There is a special mitzvah of giving gifts during the joyous holiday period to those in need  (Nechemiah 8:10; this took place on Rosh Hashana; see also  Devarim 16:11–14); the most well-known holiday this is performed is Purim, with matanot la'evyonim.[8] Those who cannot afford to give charity are nevertheless obligated to offer a good word, "And you offer your compassion to the hungry," (Yeshayahu 58:10)—even though this does not alleviate the difficult financial plight of the one in need. [9] For this reason, even a poor person is obligated to give charity and matanot aniyim to other impoverished people,[10] even though this will do nothing to reduce the gap between the various social strata.

  1. Receiving with responsibility

According to what we said above, one might think that the Torah is unconcerned about poor person's welfare. If we look into it, however, we will see a unique therapeutic social policy, actually rooted in deemphasizing the poor's social rights. We can understand this through one of the points of contention between the proponents of socialism and capitalism: who is responsible for the individual's financial situation: the individual or society?

Socialists will highlight the plight of the socially disadvantaged individual—those who do not have the physical, mental, or emotional resources to look after their interests and fall victim in the battle of life. In this light, socialism demands that society as a whole view itself as responsible for the welfare of such individuals, achieved through a long list of legislation, including: National Insurance, unemployment benefit, child benefit, disability allowance, and the list goes on.

Capitalism, in contrast, waves the flag of personal responsibility, initiative, and effort. The individual's fate is entirely in his hands. It is he, and he alone who assumes the entire responsibility of his failure; alternatively, it is he and his family who will reap all the fruits of his success. He does not see himself responsible for the fate of others in any way, shape, or form.

The Torah, as is wont to do, unites these antipodes into one comprehensive system. Rambam counts eight levels in the mitzvah of charity.[11] At the top of the list is a loan. Loans, as we know, are to be repaid. One cannot take a loan to buy alcohol and drink to intoxication; no one would loan money to a person who acts in this way. Loans are given to purchase a means of creating revenue, through which the poor person will be able to emerge from the circle of poverty. The weakness of socialism is that it habituates the poor person to leave his fate in the hands of society at large. In this way, the mitzvah of giving a loan leaves the yolk of responsibility on the shoulders of the individual in need. It is his responsibility to return the loan on time—down to the last penny.

It is not only the loan that is at the top of the list of charitable actions; together with this mitzvah is partnership: it is a mitzvah to forge a partnership with a person whose financial situation is deteriorating to help him rehabilitate himself. Even a partnership among two or three people, similar to a loan, leaves the responsibility in the hands of the one in need. It is up to him to work hard to pull himself out of poverty—with help of his fellow. He cannot live as a parasite at the expense of others in this system.

A third option that the halacha provides as a way to help those in need is to provide them with employment. To give the poor person a steady job so he will be able to sustain himself and his family with his own efforts, without being a burden on society. Today, it is known that the higher the level of personal responsibility a person has, the higher his emotional health and the greater his happiness.

Free gifts, on the other hand, are degrading—not only due to the embarrassment involved in receiving charity. While the Torah highlights the ideal of anonymous giving, since this is less embarrassing and degrading to the poor person,[12] knowing (or not knowing) the identity of the giver is not the only element at play. The feeling that one is a parasite who cannot stand on one's own two feet deals a serious blow to the psyche of a healthy human being, created in the image of G-d. The sense that others are responsible for one's fate can significantly undermine anyone's happiness and joy of life. Even today it is known that there is not always blessing in living on dole. Often, the unemployed individual feels despondent and degraded, which paves the road to despair and even alcoholism (or other addictions).

  1. Non-institutionalized charity

In the Torah's system, though, even the gifts of the poor are not a given. The Torah does not provide social insurance to anyone. There is no nationwide taxation system that would facilitate gathering extensive resources, making it possible to cover all of the poor's needs. Instead, the charity taxation system is local and small-scale. On the local level, everyone knows everyone else, so there is no need for standardized criteria. On the contrary—the main criterion involved is the subjective need of the poor person, determined based on personal acquaintance "lend him sufficiently whatever he needs,"(Devarim 15:8) on a personal and individual basis.[13] In such a system, it stands to reason that parasites would receive a small gift (since, after all, there is an obligation to give charity), while a poor individual who is genuinely trying to rehabilitate himself will naturally receive extensive assistance.

A large countrywide system, in contrast, cannot tailor itself to the unique needs of each poor individual. It can, at best, determine general criteria—which then enable parasites to receive an equal share of the proverbial cake. Such standardized social criteria actually create an incentive to remain within the parameters that entitle individuals to receive charity benefits, essentially trapping them in the circle of poverty. Leaving this circle becomes risky, so there will be those who prefer "a bird in the hand" to "two in the bush." This system effectively perpetuates poverty, where generation after generation individuals sink deeper and deeper into a mentality of poverty, distress, and hopelessness.

  1. Matanot aniyim from agricultural produce

Matanot aniyim, similar to loans, partnership, and employment, also place a large measure of responsibility on the poor individual. Farmers are not obligated to deliver any of these gifts to the homes of the poor. For leket, shichechah, and pe'ah this is even halachically prohibited: "Do not gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor" (Vayikra 19:10).[14] The poor person is charged with the responsibility of gathering the gifts on his own. The same holds true for shemitah: produce is ownerless and whoever comes first can harvest it. But if the poor person does not take the trouble to get there first, he might very well return home empty-handed. The only gift that can be delivered to a poor person is ma'aser ani. However, there is also a rule for ma'aser ani in the granary where it is given on a first-come-first-serve basis. It is only under certain circumstances that the produce owner has the prerogative or is obligated to deliver this tithe to the homes of poor individuals.[15] Even in this instance, the poor people do not know with certainty that they will receive the tithe, so it is preferable for them to make the effort to go down to the granary to take it on their own. In this manner, the poor person is forced to leave the apathy that marks a harsh socioeconomic situation; he must be proactive and take personal initiative. This facilitates the impoverished individual to break out of the poverty mentality and paves the path towards self-rehabilitation.

  1. Conclusion

Over the past few generations various attempts were made at building an egalitarian society, but it seems that they were futile or even counter-productive. The Soviet empire collapsed. The Kibbutz movement in Israel is in a state of ideological and economic crisis. The socialist-democratic financial regimes prevalent in Western European countries and in Israel are increasingly leaning towards capitalism. For more than a century, socialist ideologies reigned on high. Millions of people were attracted to them and even dedicated their lives to what they believed would create a social utopia. Many Jews broke rank, turned their backs on the Torah, and exchanged it for the Marxist ideology. Others, still, wondered: does the Torah have a response to these questions that resound around the world? It seems that now we have a broader perspective on this topic and that we are charged with the moral obligation to examine the Torah's stance on this major question.

The time is not yet ripe to set down a new social constitution in the State of Israel. Much work lays ahead of us—both halachic investigation and assessment of the situation in the field—to create a new, just system of charity that will cultivate a healthy, loving, and supportive society. One that gives with loving kindness and will serve as a beacon of light unto the nations and a shining example of a just society to the entire world


[1] First published in Emunat Itecha 16 (5757), pp. 7–10.

[2] See Rambam, Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 9:1–3.

[3] Ibid., 7:13.

[4] Ibid., 7:10.

[5] See Tosafot, Bava Batra 8b, incipit achfie; Rambam, ibid., 7:11; in contrast, see Ritva, Ketuvot 49b, incipit. ha.

[6] See Bava Batra 10a.

[7] Rambam, ibid., 10:4.

[8] Esther 9:22.

[9] Rambam, ibid., 10:5.

[10] Ibid., 7:5.

[11] Ibid., 10:7–14.

[12] Ibid., 10: 8–10.

[13] Ibid., 7:3.

[14] See Gittin 12a and Rambam ibid., 1:8. Although the plain meaning of the verse is that one should not gather these fruits, rather allow the poor to gather them, it can also be read: "do not gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard on behalf of the poor person."

[15] Rambam, ibid., 6:10.