What happens when caring for the poor is transformed from a warm, compassionate Torah obligation into a civic duty, regimented by dry, man-made law? A recently published book, “Defending the Human Spirit,” devotes a chapter to demonstrating how civil laws designed to help the poor have historically incorporated a large dose of old-fashioned middas S’dom.
WHEN BEGGING IS A CRIME
This tendency can be traced back to ancient Greece where the famous philosopher, Plato, suggested that begging should be outlawed as a crime. There is no room for beggars in his vision of the ideal state.
“No one is to go begging in the state,” he emphasizes. “Anyone who attempts to do so, and scrounges a living by never-ending importunities, must be expelled from the market by the market-wardens, and from the surrounding country, conducted out by the country-wardens across the border, so that the land may rid itself completely of such a creature.”
Plato argued that since it is unlikely that a virtuous person would be poor, a person’s poverty is proof enough that he is evil and deserves neither consideration nor compassion. His logic is strikingly similar to Turnus Rufus’ question to Rabbi Akiva, regarding poor people, “If your G-d loves the poor, why doesn’t he support them?” Rabbi Akiva answered, “So that we can be saved through them from the punishment of Gehinnom” (Bava Basra 10b).(See the gemara for the entire discussion.)
This discussion symbolizes the perennial dichotomy between tzedakah and social relief. Are poor people respected, desirable members of society, or are they an unwanted sector of the populace to be dealt with the least inconvenience to others?
In ancient Rome, Emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Justinian enacted laws against “lazy beggars.” Unlike Chazal, who stipulated no more than that the person requesting help not be a fraud, Roman legislation demanded that a poor person not only have no funds, but also have no means of earning funds through the labor of his hands.
In Rome, the idea that a person should fl ay an animal carcass in the streets rather than take charity was raised to the status of law. Thus, in his code of law (11:25:1), Emperor Justinian prescribes the following fate for the healthy person who dares stretch out his hand for alms:
“All those who adopt the uncertain calling of public beggars shall be examined and their physical condition and age ascertained. If they have not been reduced to this state through idleness or disease, those who are slaves shall become the property of the person who detected them. Where, however, they are free by birth, they shall be subjected as vassals to whoever has exposed them and proved their imposture, etc.”
Justinian’s style of thinking became prevalent in Europe towards the end of medieval times. One of the earliest examples of this is England’s “Ordinance of Laborers” of 5109/1349, a law that was promulgated in reaction to the devastating Black Death of the Fourteenth Century that killed off tens of millions. Due to the scarcity of workers, no one would be allowed to take advantage of this and request excessive wages, and no healthy person would be allowed to beg:
“The king to the sheriff of Kent, greeting. Because a great part of the people, and especially of workmen and servants, lately died of the pestilence, many seeing the necessity of masters, and great scarcity of servants, will not serve unless they may receive excessive wages, and some are rather willing to beg in idleness, than by labor to get their living; we… have upon deliberation and treaty with the prelates and the nobles and learned men assisting us, of their mutual counsel ordained:
“That every man and woman of our realm of England, of what condition he be, free or bond, able in body, and within the age of threescore years… if he in convenient service, his estate considered, be required to serve, he shall be bounden to serve him which so shall him require…
“… because that many valiant beggars, as long as they may live off begging, do refuse to labor, giving themselves to idleness and vice, and sometimes to theft and other abominations; none – upon the said pain of imprisonment – shall, under the color of pity or alms, give any thing to such, which may labor, or presume to favor them toward their desires, so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living.”
This anti-beggar stance remained a fixture of English society for centuries, generating numerous laws and penalties to keep healthy beggars off the streets. The 5254/1494 Vagabonds and Beggars Act enacted that:
“Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have no other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred (parish) where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.”
The rationale for returning beggars to their parishes was based on the fact that no parish was desirable of supporting strangers from elsewhere, and laws were legislated restricting beggars to remain in their parish of residence. The results were sometimes unimaginable.
In 5382/1622, when an old man who could not stand, walk or speak was once caught outside his parish, two men promptly lifted him up and carried him back. A 5457/1697 law that lasted over a century even required poor people to wear a red or blue badge on their shoulder bearing the letter P and the first letter of their parish. Mercifully, not all parishes were particular about this.
Even child beggars from the age of five and older could be put in the stocks and whipped until 5357/1597, when the ceiling was raised to seven years old. In 18th Century France, vagrancy and begging were crimes punishable by branding, public flogging, working in a ship’s galley, banishment and imprisonment.
The English Vagrancy Act of 5584/1824 that remained in force until 5742/1982 stated: “Every person… placing himself or herself in any public street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms, or procuring or encouraging any child or children so to do, shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person… and it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit such an offender… to the house of correction… for any time not exceeding one calendar month.”
People persisting in this habit could become liable to the punishment of one year in jail with hard labor.
Ironically, England’s attempts to assist the poor through legislation led to laws aimed against all beggars, whether they could work or not. The problem began in 5148/1388 when parishes (districts) were required to care for their poor. The “Old Poor Law,” crystallized in 5361/1601 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, read as follows:
“Be it enacted… for setting to work the children of all such parent [who are unable] to keep and maintain their children. And also for setting to work all such persons… having no means to maintain [themselves]… and also raise weekly or otherwise by taxation… a convenient stock of flax, hemp, wool… to set the poor on work. And also competent sums of money for and towards the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind, and such among them, being poor and not able to work…”
This eventually developed into the workhouse system. Instead of receiving charity in their homes, needy people were sent to workhouses, which became a common sight in the English urban landscape. In these fortresses of misery, life was often made a misery in order to encourage people to leave and find regular work.
Men were separated from their wives and children from their parents, seeing each other only at prescribed times. Able-bodied people were expected to work. If they refused they were sent to workhouses and set to work grinding corn with hand-mills, breaking stones, or some other monotonous, demeaning task.
A Nineteenth Century poet complained bitterly how poor families were torn from their homes and humiliated:
“…The lions at London with their cruel paw, you know they have passed a Starvation Law. These tigers and wolves should be chained in a den, without power to worry poor women and men.
“Like the fox in the farm-yard they slyly do creep, these hard hearted wretches, O, how dare they sleep. To think they should pass such a law in our day, to bate and to stop the poor widow’s pay.
“And if they don’t like their pay to be stopp’d, ‘gainst their own will into th’ Bastile (workhouse) they’re popped. Their homes must break up, and never return, but leave their relations and children to mourn…
“When a man and woman for sixty long years, have toiled together through troubles and fears, And brought up a family with prudence and care, to be sent to the Bastile it’s very unfair.
“And in the Bastile each woman and man, is parted asunder, is this a good plan? A word of sweet comfort they cannot express, for unto each other they ne’er have access.
“Of their uniform, too, you something shall hear, in strong Fearnaught jackets the men do appear, In coarse Grogram gowns the women do shine, and a ninepenny cap, now won’t they be fine?…”
BEGGING IN THE USA
The negative English attitude towards paupers influenced US law to a huge extent. Until fairly recently, public begging was forbidden by law. In the New York County records of 5637/1877, we find a judge applying his mental faculties to determine a suitable punishment for a young, crippled beggar:
“It appears that Frank Haller is a boy about ten years of age, and a cripple, unable to stand, and obliged to move on his hands and legs. At the time of his arrest, he had been moving down Broadway on the sidewalk, from John Street to Wall Street, thence down Wall to New Street, and had gone a short distance down New Street when he was stopped and taken into custody by the officers. As he passed along the sidewalk, the officer saw him hold out his hand to several persons and receiving money from them, but he did not hear him speak to any of them.”
The sage judge rejected an argument that the youngster should be let off the hook, as no one had actually heard him asking people for money:
“The act of begging alms or soliciting charity is the offense condemned by the law, in whatever form that act may be committed… Indeed, the class of silent beggars who exhibit deformities, wounds or injuries which tell plainer than words their needy and helpless condition are the most successful of solicitors for charity, and especially is this so when the object of alms is a young and helpless child.”
During the last few decades, US judges have begun taking a more merciful stance to begging, arguing, among other things, that denying someone the right to appeal for help is in violation of the First Amendment that guarantees free speech.
What a contrast is all this to the Torah that begins with chesed and ends with chesed. As Rabbi Akiva tells Turnus Rufus during their argument, to give tzedakah is to help the son of the King!
(Partial source: Goldstein, Rabbi Dr. Warren, “Defending the Human Spirit, Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society,” Feldheim Publishers: Jerusalem/New York, 2006.)