To the members of the community of…

לאנשי קהלת וכו'

It has already been noted that the Alter Rebbe devoted many of the letters that comprise Iggeret Hakodesh to the theme of tzedakah, particularly when dedicated to the support of those who engage in Torah study and Divine service in Eretz Yisrael. As its opening salutation indicates, the present letter is one of those sent to a particular community. Its economic state was dismal,1 and word had reached the Alter Rebbe that its charitable contributions for the Kollel Chabad Fund had fallen off accordingly.

The Alter Rebbe therefore writes that he is aware of their hardships, but it remains imperative that they maintain their regular level of generosity. The reasons he enumerates are based on the requirements of Torah law as well as on considerations that surpass the letter of the law.

My beloved, my brethren and friends, who are to me like my own soul.

אֲהוּבַיי, אַחַיי וְרֵעַיי אֲשֶׁר כְּנַפְשִׁי!

Certain qualities are uniquely found in the closeness and love of brothers, and other qualities, in the warm devotion of friends.2 In writing “my brethren and friends,” the Alter Rebbe indicates that his letter wells from both kinds of brotherlines.

The hardships of these times are not hidden from me,

הִנֵּה, לֹא נֶעְלַם מִמֶּנִּי צוֹק הָעִתִּים,

in that the means for earning a livelihood have declined,

אֲשֶׁר נִתְדַּלְדְּלָה הַפַּרְנָסָה,

especially among those known to me from your community, whose hands have faltered,

וּבִפְרָט הַיְדוּעִים לִי מִמַּחֲנֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מָטָה יָדָם

so that they are without any providers at all,3 with no work available for either husband or wife,

בְּלִי שׁוּם מַשְׁעֵן וּמַשְׁעֵנָה,

and they literally borrow in order to eat.4

וּמַמָּשׁ לוֹוִים וְאוֹכְלִים,

May G-d show them compassion and speedily bring them respite from their straits.

ה' יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם וְיַרְחִיב לָהֶם בַּצַּר בְּקָרוֹב,

Nonetheless, they are not acting rightly unto their souls,

וְעִם כָּל זֶה, לֹא טוֹב הֵם עוֹשִׂים לְנַפְשָׁם,

according to reports that they close their hand, which all their life long, to this very day, has been open

לְפִי הַנִּשְׁמַע, אֲשֶׁר קָפְצוּ יָדָם הַפְּתוּחָה מֵעוֹדָם עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה,

to give with a full hand and a generous eye5 for all vital necessities to satisfy the needs of the “clean” destitutes6

לִיתֵּן בְּיָד מְלֵאָה וְעַיִן יָפָה לְכָל הִצְטָרְכוּת הַהֶכְרֵחִיִים לְדֵי מַחְסוֹרֵי הָאֶבְיוֹנִים נְקִיִּים,

whose eyes are lifted unto us.

אֲשֶׁר עֵינֵיהֶם נְשׂוּאוֹת אֵלֵינוּ,

This refers to the destitute of Eretz Yisrael, who had absolutely no means of support other than the charitable fund of Kollel Chabad.

If we will not pity them, heaven forfend, who will?

וְאִם אָנוּ לֹא נְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, מִי יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם?

And it is written, “…so that your brother may live with you”7!

"וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ" כְּתִיב!

I.e., one should share with his brethren even that which is most essential for one’s own life.

As to the ruling of the Sages that “Your own life takes precedence,”8 this applies only in a case “when one has a pitcher of water in hand…,”

וְלֹא אָמְרוּ "חַיֶּיךָ קוֹדְמִין", אֶלָּא כְּשֶׁ"בְּיַד אֶחָד קִיתּוֹן שֶׁל מַיִם וְכוּ'",

If a traveler in the desert has just enough water to sustain his own life until civilization is reached, and if he shares it with his friend they will both inevitably die, then his own life takes precedence.

that is, when it is equally essential that both drink in order to save their lives from thirst.

שֶׁהוּא דָּבָר הַשָּׁוֶה לִשְׁנֵיהֶם בְּשָׁוֶה לִשְׁתּוֹת לְהָשִׁיב נַפְשָׁם בַּצָּמָא.

But if a pauper needs bread for the mouths of babes, and firewood and clothes against the cold, and the like,

אֲבָל אִם הֶעָנִי צָרִיךְ לֶחֶם לְפִי הַטַּף וְעֵצִים וּכְסוּת בַּקָּרָה וּכְהַאי גַּוְנָא,

then all these take precedence over any fine apparel and family feasts, with meat and fish and all kinds of delicacies, for oneself and all of one’s household.9

כָּל דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ קוֹדְמִין לְכָל מַלְבּוּשֵׁי כָבוֹד וְזֶבַח מִשְׁפָּחָה בָּשָׂר וְדָגִים וְכָל מַטְעַמִּים שֶׁל הָאָדָם וְכָל בְּנֵי בֵיתוֹ,

The rule that “your own life takes precedence” does not apply in such a case,

וְלֹא שַׁיָּיךְ בָּזֶה "חַיֶּיךָ קוֹדְמִין",

because these are not really essential to life, as are [the needs] of the poor, in true equality,

מֵאַחַר שֶׁאֵינָן חַיֵּי נֶפֶשׁ מַמָּשׁ כְּמוֹ שֶׁל הֶעָנִי, שָׁוֶה בְּשָׁוֶה מַמָּשׁ,

as is discussed in Nedarim, page 80[b].

כִּדְאִיתָא בִּנְדָרִים דַּף פ'.

The Gemara speaks there about a stream that originates in one town and flows through another. If it does not provide enough drinking water for both towns, the water rights belong to the inhabitants of the first town. The same applies to the water that both towns need for their livestock or for washing their clothes. If, however, the second town needs drinking water for its citizens while the first town only needs the water for washing clothes, then the needs of the second town prevail.

We thus see that if the respective needs are not exactly equal, then one does not say “one’s own life takes precedence,” even in a situation where one’s own needs are quite real and far from frivolous. When fathers and mothers are crying out for bread for their little ones, and for firewood and clothing to protect them from the cold, this surely takes precedence over the valid but nonessential needs of one’s own family.