Skip to main content

Poverty

POVERTY

Distinctions between rich and poor predate recorded history. In Israel, however, these differences do not seem to have become pronounced until the eighth century b.c.e., following the social revolution produced by the monarchy and the dissolution of the earlier tribal solidarity. The expansion of trade and foreign conquest brought an influx of wealth into the land, while urbanization and the rise of favored classes resulted in the amassing of fortunes (Isa. 2:7; Hos. 12:9; Amos 3:15) and the cruel impoverishment of many families (Amos 8:5; Micah 2:2).

The gross social injustice drew stinging rebukes from the prophets (e.g., Isa. 1:23; 3:14; Amos 4:1; 5:11), who called for obedience to the divine command for righteous living (Isa. 1:16–17; Amos 5:14–15) and loyalty to His covenant (Hos. 12:7ff.). Unlike the authors of the wisdom literature, the prophets did not condemn the poor for having brought poverty on themselves through sloth (Prov. 6:6–7; 10:4) and irresponsibility (13:18; 23:21). At the same time, they did not idealize the poor, recognizing that they, too, were often guilty of ignoring God's commands (Isa. 9:12–16; Jer. 5:3–5; 6:13).

Those who were in a better economic position were expected to treat the poor with compassion in order to avoid the further aggravation of their wretchedness (Ex. 22:24–26). Indeed, God Himself was their protector and His blessing to Israel was contingent upon the generous treatment they received (Deut. 15:7–11). Accordingly, Israel's laws – for example, those concerning the prompt payment of wages (Deut. 24:14–15), the prohibition of usury (Ex. 22:24; Lev. 25:36; Deut. 23:20), allotments from vintage and harvests (Lev. 19:9–10), the right to enjoy the Sabbatical fruits (Ex. 23:11) and third-year tithes (Deut. 14:28–29; 26:12–13), and the privilege of eating one's fill from a neighboring vineyard or field (Deut. 23:25–26) – provided for the amelioration of their conditions. It was the duty of the judge to protect the rights of the lowly (Ex. 23:6ff.; Lev. 19:15), as it was that of the more fortunate citizen to enable them to participate in the festivals (Deut. 16:11, 14). The king could assure the stability of his rule by concerning himself with the just treatment of the humble (Prov. 29:14).

The Torah recognized that poverty as such could not be eliminated (Deut. 15:11). At the same time, it sought to avoid the evils of pauperism by providing for periodic remission of debts during the Sabbatical Year (Deut. 15:1ff.), and the return of ancestral landed properties in the Jubilee Year as well as the manumission of Israelite slaves (Lev. 25:8ff.). In this way, it was hoped, the ancient covenant fellowship of Israel could retain its original force, as the tribal solidarity was reaffirmed and restored to the social conditions of pre-monarchical times.

Social oppression, however, did persist, and a "spiritual transposition of vocabulary" is apparent in the later literature, with ʿani (עני) and ʿanaw (ענו) becoming functionally equivalent to "God-fearing" and "pious" (Zeph. 2:3; 3:12–13), the opposite of rashaʿ. By this time, though, the term had lost its sociological significance. In any event, neither before nor after the Exile did the poor constitute a religious party or social class.

[David L. Lieber]

In the Talmud

The Talmud reveals a distinctly ambivalent attitude toward poverty. It would appear that poverty was so widespread and was regarded as so irremediable that it was raised to the level of a virtue which had its positive value. Poverty appears to have been particularly endemic in Babylonia. "Of ten measures of poverty which descended to the world, Babylonia took nine" (Kid. 49b) and it was stated that the poverty of the Jews there was the reason that the festivals were celebrated with special joy (Shab. 145b). Both the negative and positive aspects are equally stressed. The former finds its expression in such statements as that "grinding poverty deprives a man of his mental balance" (Er. 41b) and it is the worst of all sufferings in the world (Ex. R. 31:12). "Poverty in a man's house is worse than 50 plagues" (bb 116a). The statement in the Talmud (Ned. 64b) that the "poor man" is one of the four who are regarded as dead has to be amended, as the context shows, to "he who has lost his property," i.e., the man who was once wealthy and is reduced to poverty. Rav's daily prayer, which included "a life of wealth and honor" (Ber. 16b), is only one of a host of statements which extol the contrary desirable ideal of wealth, or at least the absence of poverty.

On the other hand poverty is extolled as having a positive value, from the point of view of its salutary effect both upon the character of the poor and upon the sense of generosity which it engenders in those who relieve it. All the various statements in the Talmud which emphasize both aspects are collated in one statement in a late Midrash, "the Holy One Blessed be He considered all the boons which He could confer upon Israel, and selected poverty, since as a result of poverty they fear the Lord. Righteousness derives only from poverty; *gemilut ḥasadim derives only from poverty; a man becomes godfearing only through poverty; a man studies Torah only through poverty" (ehz 24). For the last, compare "take special care of the children of the poor; from them comes Torah" (Ned. 81a). Indeed "Poverty is as becoming to Israel as red trappings on a white horse" (Ḥag. 9b). The parallel passage (Lev. R. 35:6) which has "the daughters of Israel" is ascribed to R. Akiva and it is he who answers the other aspect of the positive value of charity. "If your God loves the poor why does he not support them?" asked *Tinneius Rufus, and Akiva answered, "so that through them [i.e., by relieving their wants] we may be delivered from Gehinnom" (bb 10a). A particular aspect of the virtue of poverty is found in the statement "the men of the Great Synagogue fasted 24 fasts that scribes of Torah scrolls, *tefillin, and *mezuzah should not become prosperous" (Pes. 50b). The Midrash enumerates eight names for the poor man in the Bible. The comprehensive one is ani; the evyon, as the root of the word conveys, is the needy man in the literal sense ("he who is in need of something"); while the misken is "the most despised of all" (Lev. R. 34:6). The poorman who was entitled to receive food from the public soup kitchen (tamḥui) was one who did not have sufficient for two meals a day (Shab. 118a).

Poverty was almost predetermined and was regarded as independent of man's efforts. "R. Meir said: One should always pray to Him to whom all wealth and property belong, for there is not a craft in which are not [the potentialities] of poverty and of wealth, for neither poverty nor wealth is due to the craft, but all depends upon one's [spiritual] merit" (Kid. 4:14).

The relief of the poor had to be effected with the utmost delicacy and consideration. "God stands together with the poor man at the door, and one should therefore consider whom one is confronting" (Lev. R. 34:9). One of the earliest talmudic authorities, Yose b. Johanan of Jerusalem, made as his maxim: "Let the poor be members of thy household" (Avot 1:5); "he who is openhanded to the poor will be vouchsafed male children" (bb 10b). The previous circumstances of the poor man were taken into consideration, and the story is told of Hillel who, when a poor man who had once been in prosperous circumstances came to him for help, provided him with a horse and a "servant to run before him" since that was the minimum to which he was accustomed, and when he could not find (or afford) a servant he acted himself in that capacity (Ket. 67b). Applicants for food were examined as to the genuineness of their needs, but not applicants for clothes, but the contrary view also has its advocates (bb 9a). In the dispensation of charity the local poor took precedence over those from other towns (bm 71a). A peripatetic mendicant was provided with a minimum of a loaf of bread of a certain value, and lodging for the night (bb 9a). It was stated that most poor are descendants of the tribe of Simeon; this being the effect of Jacob's curse "I will scatter them in Israel" (Gen. 4, 9:7; Gen. R. 98:5).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

bibliography:

A. Kuschke, in: zaw, 57 (1939), 31–57; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 72–74; H.J. Muller, Freedom in the Ancient World (1961), 34; S.N. Kramer, The Sumerians (1963), 77; Baron, Social2, index, 234; M. Lazarus, The Ethics of Judaism (1900).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Poverty." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Poverty." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/poverty

"Poverty." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved August 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/poverty

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.