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How Much Help Do I Have To Give?

How Much Help Do I Have To Give?

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Question:

If you work for a Jewish agency, and are helping a client get back on his feet, does Jewish law dictate that you help the person just get back on his feet, or do you have to do it to the level that he was (financially or support) accustomed to before he came for help?

Answer:

Like all other questions, the answer to your query can be found in the Torah. Let's have a look at some verses in Deuteronomy 15:7-8:

"If there will be among you a needy person…you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking."

How do we define "his sufficient needs, which he is lacking?" By emphasizing the particularity of needs (with the word "he"), the Torah is subtly pointing out that needs are defined according to the person and his or her history. For one person, hunger may be satisfied with a bowl of rice, but another person is still needy as long as the rice has no tomato sauce--because that is what he has become used to. One person lost his apartment, so we need to get him another apartment. Another lost his five bedroom house—so we have not fulfilled our obligation until he has a five bedroom house again. We are not obligated to make him rich—meaning, to go beyond his loss. But we are obligated to get him back to whatever he became accustomed to before his loss.

The Talmud (Ketubot 67b) shows us how one of the great early Talmudic sages, Hillel, went through great lengths to make sure that the poor should be cared for according to their custom. He once bought a certain poor man who was of a good family a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him. On one occasion he could not find a slave to run before him, so he himself ran before him for three miles. For an aristocrat, a slave and a horse were considered basic necessities. And this is the standard to which we strive as well.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572), points out in his glosses to the Code of Jewish Law (250:1) that this obligation rests on the community and communal organizations. An individual, however, is not obligated to go to such lengths. Rather, he should draw public attention to the situation. If there is no-one to inform, then he should give according to his means.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Yehuda Shurpin May 25, 2009

RE: conflict Judaism does not try to rid anyone of their wealth.
Our sages learn from the words in the verse in Deuteronomy 15:7, “If there will be among you a needy person,” that “the neediest person has priority” (see Rashi ad loc). So yes, we are to focus on the one who is more destitute. However, the question was not about who gets priority. The question was about how much charity we are required to give them. Furthermore, this was not referring to a billionaire who lost billions and now is only a millionaire, rather to one who was once a billionaire and now is a pauper. Reply

danny london May 21, 2009

conflict yehuda, you say that we should get them back to what they are accustomed to, but judaism tries to rid of extremes of wealth. if someone is a billionaire and is now only a millionaire, torah says that we should focus on the destitute instead of the millionaire. Reply

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