History of Jewish philanthropy / New Works in the Field

The Development of Charity in Early Jewish Thought

Editors’ Note: Gregg Gardner introduces his new book, Wealth, Poverty, and Charity in Jewish Antiquity (University of California Press, 2022),

The ancient rabbis of the first centuries tell a story about a king, named “Munbaz.” Munbaz is loosely based on a historical figure – Monobazus II, the scion of a royal dynasty from Mesopotamia that ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus says converted to Judaism in the first century CE. Perhaps to mark their conversion, Munbaz’s family travels to Jerusalem, where there is a drought and a famine. To provide relief, Munbaz gives away his fortune to the needy: Munbaz “spends” – a play on words in Hebrew: Munbaz bizbez. His brothers confront him and demand an explanation as to why he’s giving away the family fortune, which their ancestors had saved and accumulated for generations. Munbaz says he is not squandering the family fortune, but rather he is storing or saving it. His brothers are confused, but Munbaz explains that by giving your money to charity here on earth, you do not waste it, but you actually store it (ganaz in Hebrew) in the world to come. That is, giving away one’s treasures on earth to the needy amounts to saving them for oneself in the afterlife. And with that, Munbaz, a relatively obscure figure in Jewish lore, plays a pivotal role in the conceptualization of charity or tsedaqah in Hebrew, which would become a centerpiece of Jewish ethics to this day.

In my book, Wealth, Poverty, and Charity in Jewish Antiquity, I explore formulations of charity in the earliest rabbinic texts – compilations of teachings and traditions in Hebrew from the late second and early third centuries CE. These texts would later become the basis for subsequent Jewish ethics and law. I am surely not the first to write about early rabbinic charity. Scholarship to date has often approached the topic apologetically, analyzing charity through the lenses of pity, altruism, generosity, and atonement.[1] Previous studies have rarely focused on or struggled with the central and complex topic of wealth – which stands at the conceptual center of giving. This is likely the product of a broader hesitancy among scholars of the ancient world to explore the linkages between wealth and religiosity. Some advancements in our understanding, have been made recently, especially in scholarship on early Christianity, such as the monumental book by Peter Brown, Though the Eye of the Needle (Princeton University Press,2012) – which highlights the impact of wealth and decisions by the wealthy on ancient societies. In my book, which focuses on ancient Jewish traditions, I show how attention to the concept of wealth can enhance our understanding of attitudes towards care for the poor. I argue that the earliest rabbis saw the problem of poverty as a problem of wealth – involving questions about how wealth is created and destroyed, gained and lost; how wealth creates social difference by defining “rich” and “poor”; how wealth is conceptualized, measured, and allocated; and how to motivate others to part with their wealth and give it to the needy. I also consider how the rabbis’ own elevated socio-economic position influenced their thinking, as their laws are crafted from the perspective of potential givers, more so than poor recipients. The rabbis formulate charity as a commandment to give – there is no commandment for one to receive or accept charity. With comparisons to early Christian and Greco-Roman attitudes, my book seeks to add a piece to the broader puzzle of understanding the role of giving in religious traditions.

To illuminate rabbinic Judaism’s foundational laws on poverty relief and how wealth shaped Jewish law, it is essential to understand the socio-economic position of the earliest rabbis who developed these ideas. The earliest wave of rabbis numbered about 100 or so individuals living in Roman Galilee in the late second and early third century CE. As “rabbis,” they were self-proclaimed “masters” or “teachers” of the Torah (Pentateuch) and its interpretation. Unlike today, being a rabbi was not a fulltime or paid profession; the earliest rabbis had no congregations and probably had very few disciples or following of any kind. Rather, the early rabbis studied and taught on their own time and earned a living in other ways; some owned and managed land, while others worked in trade and crafts. Some were surely wealthy, and most were at least well off – but none seem to have been poor or economically dependent upon others. That none of the early rabbis were poor contrasts with some long-held views based on depictions in traditional Jewish sources. For example, the Babylonian Talmud (i.e., the Talmud; compiled in sixth-seventh century CE Mesopotamia), which would become the preeminent work of Jewish traditions that continues to be studied on a daily basis today as the source of Jewish law, re-casted the early rabbis in legendary, even hagiographic terms, depicting them as “rags-to-riches” figures whose fortunes were lifted by their commitment to studying and teaching the Torah.

The earliest rabbis of the second to third century define charity or tsedaqah as giving “mammon” or wealth to the living poor. All three elements of this definition deserve closer attention. First, charity is for the poor, who the rabbis define in terms that are material – poor means simply a lack of wealth. By contrast, among other religious groups of the era, such as early Christians, one can be spiritually poor. Second, by specifying that charity is for the living poor, the rabbis emphasize that it can only be fulfilled by giving to those who still walk the earth. Burying the dead or other forms of giving to those who are no longer living was certainly exemplary but did not qualify as an act of tsedaqah per se – rather, it would fall under other categories of rabbinic ethics. That is, charity was intended to address the specifically material needs of the living poor – a much narrower definition than the modern usages of the Hebrew tsedaqah and the English “charity.”

The third element of the rabbis’ definition of charity is that it entails the provision of “mammon” or wealth. Whereas mammon had a negative connotation in the New Testament (which has carried over into its sense in modern English), it is value neutral in early rabbinic sources. Mammon proved to be a useful concept that helped the rabbis define, elucidate, and add precision to their socio-religious laws. That a religious commandment required the provision of material resources suggests that charity was developed by those who had some income to spare. The rabbis understood mammon as moveable property, which places charity at least partially within the purview of civic laws that regulate the transfer of property. Doing so also gives the poor recipient a modicum of agency, as a benefactor’s obligation to give charity can only be completed if a poor person willingly and physically draws the mammon into their possession.

Wealth was a concept useful to think with, including with respect to how to motivate giving. Sources on charity are rich in terminology drawn from economic realms – including the ancient texts on Munbaz. Here, giving to the poor earns one “pay” or “recompense” that is banked for the performer in the afterlife. One can earn a “wage” for performing commandments such as charity, while God is cast as the employer par excellence. The rabbis encourage people to spend their earthly “profits” and “treasures” on the poor, which would trigger deposits of immaterial versions of these assets into one’s account in the afterlife. The heavenly deposits, which find parallels in the New Testament and other early Christian writings, cannot be lost, stolen, or deteriorate like earthly wealth. Here we also see the influence of Greco-Roman norms of giving, where benefactors were rewarded with symbolic, political, and social capital. Again, we can see that the early rabbis naturally focus on the obligations of the giver, more so than the perspective of recipients. More broadly, the use of terms such as “profits,” and “treasures” demonstrate how thinking about wealth played important roles in crafting the earliest rabbinic conception of charity.

The importance of wealth in charitable giving leads me towards the end of my book to devote some attention to wealth on its own. The ancient rabbis struggled with several questions related to wealth: What are the sources of wealth? How is it created? How is it destroyed? On first blush, the ancient rabbis present wealth as determined by God and as a mark of divine favor, as early rabbinic texts often associate wealth with wise individuals. That said, rabbinic traditions on how wealth is created or destroyed are complex and ridden with ambiguities and anxiety. Sometimes the rabbis hold that wealth is determined by God. At other times, they see a more dominant role for human actions and human behavior in commerce and economic realms. And then there are times in which the rabbis seem deeply uncertain; they simply do not know if it is even possible to determine why wealth waxes or wanes. The rabbis’ starting point is that God determines who is rich and who is poor, a position that seems strongly based on biblical traditions (e.g., Proverbs 22:2 and 29:13). Closely related to this is the concept of “measure-for-measure” – whereby one’s actions are met with appropriate punishments or rewards. A number of rabbinic texts posit material rewards or a loss of wealth for one’s actions, meted out by God. At the same time, the concept of measure-for-measure chips away at the notion of total divine control over wealth as it is triggered by human behavior and choice. In some passages, the rabbis posit that one’s wealth or poverty rests in one’s own hands — following the Torah will be rewarded with wealth, whereas transgressing it will be punished with poverty.

And yet, elsewhere, the rabbis give a sense that one’s fortunes are determined entirely by human activity. One’s own labor and decisions, combined with the ups and downs of everyday economic activity – itself the sum total of the daily labors of others – determine, or at least strongly influence, how and when wealth is created or lost. As such, the rabbis are not internally consistent on the matter, but rather their attitudes are diverse and ambiguous, showing that they sense how human actions determine levels of wealth, yet also that they do not fully understand how human action and divine will coexist.

Such anxieties and uncertainties around wealth can develop especially persistently among those with much to lose, which relates back to my earlier point that the early rabbis were well off and were thus susceptible to the fear of loss– something that later behavioral economists would call the “endowment effect.” The early rabbis discuss, in several texts, a category of individuals who were wealthy but have plunged into poverty. For them, communal charity – a concept which I examined in my first book – ought to restore them to their previous position life, regardless of the cost. One text posits that even if a person used to have a servant and a horse, these too should be restored to them if they fall into poverty. In this way, wealth – having it, and the fear of losing it – has an additional impact on shaping the concept of charity.

[1] Central is the classic study of Urbach (in Hebrew, with an English abstract). Some more recent and critically treatments include those by Alyssa Gray, Yael Wilfand, and Benny Porat. For accessible overviews of different scholarly approaches, see these online symposia.

-Gregg Gardner

Gregg E. Gardner is Associate Professor and Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics in the Department of Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Wealth, Poverty, and Charity in Jewish Antiquity (University of California Press, 2022), which was awarded the 2022 Canadian Jewish Literature Award for Scholarship.

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