The Dignity of The Poor Man

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

The Torah recognizes that the problem of unequal distribution of wealth is an endemic one and that there are no effective solutions for eradicating poverty. For this reason the Torah instituted different levels of sacrifices to match the socioeconomic level of the donor. Some sacrifices can be brought in three forms: a sheep, two fowl or a measure of flour,based on the donor’s financial ability. Various types of meal-offerings can also be brought, and the Rabbis explain that these are generally brought by indigent people who cannot afford an animal.

One of the prerequisites for a meal offering is that it should be carved into pieces before it is offered. Rabbi Aharon Bakst, the rabbi of Shavli, Lithuania (martyred in 1941 in the Holocaust), explained that the poor man might be embarrassed by the small size of his offering, and therefore the Torah insisted that it should be divided up to fill the pan and make it appear bigger. Similarly, when a bird is sacrificed, the Torah commands that the priest should not separate the bird’s wings. This would cause the immediate incineration of the bird and the poor man would be offended to see his carefully prepared offering consumed so fast, while his wealthier counterpart’s ox is divided and offered over a lengthier period of time.

In this way the Torah is trying to educate us to show great sensitivity to those who are less fortunate than us and make Herculean efforts to preserve their dignity. Another example of this can be found in the mitzva of Bikkurim (first fruits). The Mishna states that the wealthier people who brought their first fruits in expensive baskets were given back the baskets, whereas the poor had to forfeit their less decorative baskets together with the fruit. Rabbi Bakst points out that this custom serves to protect the honor of the poor. Generally speaking they will bring less fruit and of poorer quality, and if the priest would take out these fruits and return the basket to the donors, they would be ashamed by the paucity of their contribution,and therefore the priests took the basket as well, to make the Bikkurim appear more substantive. Even though their gift is small the Torah did not want them to feel that it is measly and insignificant.

One of the most challenging areas where poverty plays a key part is in the realm of matrimony. Even though the qualities needed for a good spouse can be found in many poor people – kindness, wisdom, patience and fear of G-d, etc., most people invariably focus on superficial traits such as wealth, social status and appearance.

A most unusual ceremony used to take place in ancient Israel twice a year. The young women who had reached marriageable age would emerge from their houses in “white borrowed clothes” and would attempt to describe to their prospective spouses their own merits in the hope of attracting a suitable mate. The Talmud(Taanit 30a) explains that they wore borrowed clothes “so as not to embarrass those who do not possess these clothes”. I believe that an additional reason for this custom was the need to reduce the effect that external appearences have on people, and therefore the rabbis preferred that people seeking a matrimonial partner should not flaunt their best clothes and finery. In this way the poor would have a fair chance of presenting their true qualities without feeling inferior to their richer counterparts.

The message which these sources all seem to convey is that even if we cannot erase the scourge of poverty,we can do much to mitigate its deletorious social consequences by showing a heightened sensitivity towards the poor person. If G-d can say (Rashi Vayikra 2:1) that a pauper who brings a simple meal-offering is considered as if he had offered his life, it behooves us to emulate G-d and appreciate even the small and seemingly insignificant gifts we receive from others.Likewise we should beware of judging a person by what he has earned or by his lineage, and should go out of our way to make less fortunate individuals feel comfortable with their means even if they appear to us very lowly and demeaning.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).