Using Welfare Systems as a Source of Charity

Responsa of the Week: Using Welfare Systems as a Source of Charity

A weekly series by Dr. Meir Tamari about responsa regarding business ethics issues.

In order to demonstrate the work of the halakhic system and its moral considerations regarding a variety of issues in business and economics, I will present a number of responsa drawn from the literature. These represent questions addressed either by laymen or by rabbis or communities to rabbinical authorities and their answers. They cover a period of close to 2000 years and reflect Jewish life in all the countries of the Diaspora. Even though the answers may vary and conflict with each other so that one cannot draw behavioral conclusions from them, they demonstrate Jewish thinking and values in this field.

While the provision of basic goods, jobs and living conditions are a necessary component of the welfare system, it is not the only one. Health services, torah education and the redeeming of captives were included in the communal responsibility, to be financed out of tax money.

Hekdesh, a term originally referring to anything dedicated to the Temple service, later came to signify the hospice maintained by Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora. These often served a dual purpose: that of an inn for travelers and that of a hospital for the poor, both local and transients. In Talmudic times we hear of the Cheder Hasayish “the room of marble” as a place for the care of the sick, while in 1765, we learn that there were 18 patients in the Vilna hekdesh. (S. Baron, The Jewish Community, vol. 3, p 210). In the Responsa of Samuel di Medina, the rabbi dealt with the problem of the erection of a joint hospital by four different Balkan communities (Tsh’uvot Maharshdam, Orach Chaim 20, and Yore De’ah 207-9) The existence of communal doctors paid for out of public funds, whose job it was to assess the damage done to claimants in cases of accidents or physical violence, is shown in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 78a).

Effective medical care, however, not only involves the cost of a physician and hospitalization, but also requires a support system to alleviate the effects of illness on the peace of mind of the sick person and on the family unit. Modern medicine recognizes such a support system as an intrinsic part of communal health care, and therefore expects home care and personal counseling to be funded either by the patient’s health insurance or by the State. Such supports have always been part and parcel of a Jewish welfare system. (Rambam Hilkhot Eivel, chapter 14, halakhot 1-5 See also Talmud, Nedarim 40a ). Furthermore, we have evidence from the enactments of the autonomous Jewish communities, eg., the 1558 statute passed by the community in Avignon, Southern France, making it a communal obligation and the enactment of Padua obligating those on the welfare rolls to visit the sick etc.

These, and the many other references throughout our sources clearly demonstrate that Jewish law and practice mandated the existence of publicly financed health services for the poor. It should be noted that these health services, like all the other welfare services, were meant as charity that is only for those who were defined as being poor.

Unfortunately, pidyon shevuim, ransoming the captives, has been a constant feature of Jewish life throughout the centuries. This was considered a particularly meritorious deed since the captive, even if rich, had all the characteristics of the poor and destitute while in captivity. Over and above the many laws applying to pidyon shevuim, which need not concern us in the context of this paper, there is one aspect that has relevance to social justice. In general, Judaism does not accept the Christian concept of ‘the deserving poor,’ those whom it is justified to help. The Jewish idea is shown, inter alia, by the halakhic treatment of the captive whose fate is self induced.

“Reuven borrowed money with the intent of not repaying and was subsequently imprisoned for the debt. The community is required to redeem him using the communal funds [raised through taxation]. On his release, he repeated the offence nevertheless the community has the same obligation to redeem, even for the third time. If there is a danger to his life, then the obligation remains, even if he repeats his acts many times” (Rambam, Hilkhot Matnat Aniyim, chapter 8, halakhah 13). It seems reasonable that charity would apply also to the lazy and addicted. (Teshuvot asei lecha rav)

The separation of social justice for the poor and weak from the provision of services to the general public, from the state or communal budget is essential when considering the social responsibility of society and any proposal for cuts in the government budget. An example of Judaism’s attitude to this question is clearly shown by the problem of including education in the welfare basket.

There are certain obligations that are fulfillment of mitzvoth, like charity to poor or building a mikvah, and halakhically these cannot be removed from the budget, even by a decision of the majority. In contrast, a community has the right to decide on any services it wishes to provide, but these may be reduced or negated by majority vote.

There is a halakhic decision that the community has an obligation to fund Torah education for the poor, following the biblical commandment, “And you shall teach them diligently to your children” (Deut, 6:7).

“The neighbors may not restrain one from opening a school to teach Torah, saying we cannot sleep for the noise [or dirt or bother] of the children. [This is the ‘tax’ as it were imposed on them in view of the obligation for Torah study placed on them]” (Mishnah, Baba Metziah, chapter 2, mishnah 3). “The charity of supporting poor boys in the study of Torah or of giving to the poor sick [both obligatory] is more important that maintaining a synagogue [also obligatory but not of the same priority].” (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreah Deah, Hilkhot Tzedakah, section 249) This obligation does not apply to secular studies. (Rambam, commentary on the Mishnah specifically excludes a school for the teaching of mathematics). This means that while a majority vote could make these secular studies fundable through tax money, a minority vote to do so would not be effective.


The biblical verse of the golden mean is incorrectly translated as, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It should read, “love to your neighbor,” for in Judaism charity is not given but done.

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Dr. Meir Tamari is the former chief economist of the Office of the Governor at the Bank of Israel, and the founder of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.