Is there such a thing as a Jewish beggar?
Best of Both Worlds
For much of Jewish history, tzeddakah was so well organized that to outsiders it seemed as if Jewish beggars were extinct. An example of this appears in the 5436/1676 book, The Present State of the Jews in Barbary authored by an English chaplain who had spent time in the Middle East. Notwithstanding the book’s frontispiece of a feather draped Red Indian, Barbary is actually part of North Africa.
In chapter 25, the chaplain J. Adisson explains why people thought Jews were beggar- free: “Those who have observed that the Jews have no beggars seem not well informed of the manner of their alms and their way of providing for the poor… For though among the Jews in Barbary there is a great store of needy persons, yet they are supplied after a manner, which much conceals (as to men of other religions) their poverty. For the wealthier take care to provide for them… in a more mutual charity of alms than either the Moor or Christian…”
This propensity of Jews to support their poor eventually led some people to try and abolish beggars altogether. A 5656/1896 report in The New York Times bearing the ominous title, “A Death Knell to Beggars,” expresses satisfaction that the recently established “United Hebrew Charities” has made the Jewish beggar “an unknown character upon our streets… for it brought into being a society whose business it was to relieve honest distress, and thither all were directed.” The Chofetz Chaim strongly opposed such trends. Indeed, the Rashba (Teshuvos 3:380) writes that the poor should have the best of both worlds by enjoying both public and private funding:
“You asked – the poor of the town are many and taxes are expensive,” he writes. “Therefore, there is controversy among the wealthy, the very wealthy saying, let them go door to door… while less wealthy people claim that according to halachah they should remain home … and be supported by the tzibbur, each person contributing according to his wealth…”
In response, the Rashba ruled that everyone was right; the poor should have the best of both worlds: “In every place we give support from the public chest and [collect] according to [each person’s] wealth. If they go from door to door after that, let them, and each person can give according to what he wants.”
The New York Times article cited earlier noted that funding of the “United Hebrew Charities” was conditional on the beggar’s propensity to work: “Either he must establish a claim upon the benevolence of others, in which case he is assisted, or he must find work, and the society will help him to it.”
Although helping a poor person find work is indeed the highest level of charity and a person should skin a carcass in the marketplace rather than accept tzeddakah, the following Medrash Rabbah (Vayikra 34:4) intimates that it is wrong to turn down a poor person’s request for charity on the grounds that he should go and find work:
“The rich person said to the poor person, ‘Why don’t you go and exert yourself with work in order to eat!’ Look at your legs, look at your feet, look at your belly, look at your fat flesh!’ The Holy One says to him, ‘Is it not enough that you give him nothing of yours but that you also put the evil eye upon what I gave him! Therefore… from all that you have, you will not leave to your son, and you cause a blemish to yourself.’”
The Chofetz Chaim (Amud Hachesed, Peh Kadosh, p. 15) explains that the poor are not blameworthy even if they could seemingly invest more effort. This is because Hashem’s decree whether a person will be rich or poor can also include that a rich person will be filled with alacrity to earn money, while a poor person will be afflicted with a lazy disposition to the point that he would rather eat dry bread than work hard.
Nonetheless, there were communities that made the mitzvah of hachnassos kallah (wedding dowries) contingent on the girl contributing to the expenses by working as a servant and adding to the dowry. A 5355/1595 takanah in Cracow denies help to any family whose daughter refuses to serve as a servant from the age of ten.
A similar decree of the Lithuanian council of 5398/1638 demanded that poor girls living near large kehillos serve as servants for three years:
“Poor girls from the vicinity… are not to be given anything until they have in hand… some visible proof from the leaders of the community that they have served in the homes of the householders dwelling within the community for a period of three years from the time that they were twelve years old, since this age is fitting for domestic service…”
As mentioned earlier, Jews were famous for their care of the poor to the extent that people sometimes got the impression there were no Jewish beggars at all. This situation altered radically after Tach and Tat (the massacre of Polish Jewry during the Chmielnicki atrocities of the midseventeenth century) when the numbers of impoverished Jews shot out of control and thousands began traveling from town to town and country to country in a desperate attempt to keep body and soul together.
The book A Social History of Germany records that, “In the poor regions of the east, there existed a fluctuating horde of Jewish beggars (Pletten) who would come into the town and villages to celebrate the feast of Atonement, etc.” The Germans gave them the ignominious title of Betteljueden (non-working Jews) and often banned them from town. In April 5510/1750, we find Frederick II of Prussia outlawing them in a charter of Jewish regulations:
“It has already been decreed many times that Jewish beggars are nowhere to be allowed to cross our borders. We not only repeat this, but in order that in the event any such Jewish beggars nevertheless reach our capital surreptitiously, they shall be brought at once to the Poor-Jews Home at the Prenzlau Gate. There they are to be given alms and on the following day evicted through the gate without being allowed to enter the city.”
Jews everywhere did their best to help the hordes of destitute people who had nowhere they could call home.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Moses Porges-Spiro was induced to join the Messianic Frankist movement and soon realized it was a fraud. In his short memoir, he describes how someone advised him and a companion to take advantage of charitable Jews on his way home:
“He gave us advice to take pletten, namely we, as destitute indigents, should be supported by the Jewish congregation in the area. After persistent repetition of that advice, we promised to try it. Our advisor wrote down the names of the settlements where there were Jewish communities. Thereupon we started on our journey. A depressing feeling of shame overcame us at our first attempt. The hosts whom we looked up were mainly cattle dealers and not at home during the week – all were poor people. We were received by the women of the house, given soup and bread in the evening and a place to sleep. In the morning, soup again and a few kreuzer [pennies]. We soon got tired of this and gave up.”
Indigent Jews were called Pletten due to the Pletten, or ticket system that started at the end of the fifteenth century. A community issued tickets to beggars bearing the name of a local baal bayis who would supply him with food and drink for up to three days. Pletten also provided meals for yeshiva bachurim. Failure to honor the tickets could lead to fines and public denouncement in shul. This system survived in many Jewish communities up to the beginning of the twentieth century.
Another obsolete mode of giving tzeddakah was through tokens. As mentioned in an earlier article, since it was not always feasible to hand a poor person the smallest Russian coin, a kopek, as for fifteen kopeks one could buy a whole turkey in 5590/1830, the government allowed communities to produce tokens worth as little as a thirty-second of a kopek. This system lasted until early into the twentieth century.
In Volozhin, bachurim used to receive tzetlach (tickets) in lieu of money, which were so common that even local non-Jews used them as cash.
Help Yourself Jews constantly come up with innovative ways to give tzeddakah. An eighteenth century English paper titled “The Selector” (Edition no. 1 of 5536/1776, which also reports on the American Civil War) includes the following article entitled, “A method of giving alms among the Jews.” “Many opulent Jews have formed a society at Berlin, the intention of which is to relieve such of their brethren as are in indigence or who have met with misfortune. They have two boxes, the one marked A, which is always shut close and never empty; the other marked B is always open and more or less left according to circumstances. When any accidents, such as diseases, death, fires, etc. afflict any family of the nation, these two boxes are sent to them.
“If the family be not in real want, they take nothing out of the open box; but if still in easy circumstances they deposit in it their voluntary contribution. If the open box cannot contain the alms, the surplus is put into the close box. If the family be indigent, it disposes of the contents of the open box in whole or in part. The other box is never emptied until it is entirely full.”
The article also describes a similar system practiced by London Jews. “When any Jew dies in London, as the burial must be over before sunset, the shroud intended for the deceased is sent from house to house [to be sewn], and along with it an alms box locked. The mistress of every house into which they are brought sews some part of the shroud and puts something more or less according to their circumstance into the box.”
All this is only a tiny part of the chesed Jews have given to others even at times when they had barely enough for themselves. Through good times and bad, they never ceased to give generously. And when Jews give charity, they never forget to give of themselves.