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Wealth And Poverty: A Jewish Analysis

Page 7 of 10

Another case: a Biblical right to end contract - not to strike

The right of the labourer to retract is another case in point. The ruling that "an employee may retract even in the middle of the day"23 , a third century provision, was based on a careful thinking-through of the verse, "For to Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants who I brought out of the land of Egypt".24 To be a servant of God precluded being the servant of anyone else, so that dependence and slavery were fundamentally at odds with the lesson of the Exodus. This mean that no-one could acquire ownership in a human being; no-one could bind himself contractually to an employer in such way as to preclude the possibility of his opting out at any stage, should he so choose.

This looks like a very early anticipation of the right to strike. But again, it is not so. The right of an employee to retract meant that he could terminate his contract. A strike has precisely opposite aims, to preserve a contract but to change its terms.26 And in recent centuries the question of the right to strike arose and was subjected to deliberation. But no-one who considered the question felt that there was any guidance to be gained from Biblical verse, or from the law of retraction. The similarity disappeared as soon as the two cases were analysed.27

The rabbinic definition of poverty: charity to those beneath subsistence level and the relatively poor - not relative to others but to their own previous condition

Let me now consider the question of definition as it was approached by the rabbis. What is poverty? Well, it depended. Were we talking about value or about law? Here, for instance, is a conversation between four second-century rabbis.

"Who is wealthy? He who has pleasure in his wealth": this is the view of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Tarfon said: "He who possesses a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields, and a hundred servants working in them". Rabbi Akiva said: "He who has a wife who is comely in good deeds". Rabbi Jose said: "He who has a toilet near his table".28

This was the kind of table-talk in which the rabbis delighted, coming at a subject from all angles, and perhaps not too seriously. Rabbi Meir gives a philosophical answer: wealth is a state of mind, rejoicing in what you have, whether it is much or little. Rabbi Tarfon won't have any of it: wealth is wealth, and let's not evade the issue. Rabbi Akiva tells us frankly that someone who has a good wife is wealthy whatever else he lacks. And Rabbi Jose replies in the spirit of "If I were a wealthy man". If only I didn't have to go so far to the toilet, that would be riches indeed.

But this sort of brainstorming definition is clearly distinguished from the careful parameters of practical policy-making. There was, already at the time, a system of organised communal charity collection and distribution, and one needed to know who was poor in such a way as to be entitled to support. Naturally one turned to the Bible for clarification.

The proof text here was the verse: "Thou shalt open thy hand wide to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he lacks" (Deuteronomy 15:8). The reference was to a loan, but the logic applied equally to a gift. What hen was meant by the two phrases, "sufficient for his need" and "that which he lacks"? Here is the ancient unpacking of the verse:

Sufficient for his need means you are commanded to maintain him, but you are not commanded to make him rich. That which he lacks means even a horse to ride on and a slave to run before him. It is told of Hillel the elder that he bought for a certain poor man of good family a horse to ride on and a slave to run before him. On one occasion he could not find a slave to run before him, so he himself ran before him for three miles.29

There are, therefore, two elements in the rabbinic definition of poverty: first, an absolute subsistence level, covered by the phrase "sufficient for his need". This included food, housing, basic furniture and, if necessary, funds to pay for a wedding.30 The second, dictated by the phrase "that which he lacks" introduces the notion of relative poverty, but in a restricted sense - relative not to others, but to his own previous condition, that to which he had become accustomed. This accords with the rabbis' insistence that poverty - in the sense in which the Bible was concerned with it - had psychological as well as physical reference.

Clearly one needed further clarification of what constituted being accustomed. The story of Hillel referred to a "poor man of good family", implying that he had been accustomed to a certain lifestyle from birth. Was the law restricted to such cases? Most thought not.31 But in practical terms a more fundamental question needed to be answered. What was the purpose of the provision? Was it that the loss of what one was used to constituted a genuine need; or was it rather that it amounted to a public humiliation to be seen to be descending the social ladder? It made a difference. Maimonides, for instance, rules that someone who has lost his income but still possesses wealth, need not sell the family Gaugin, and may apply for support, so long as he does so from private benefactors; but he may not apply to the community funds in such a case.32 The logic seems to be that humiliation is the decisive factor. Public support cannot prevent this, by its very publicity, and is therefore restricted to providing subsistence needs. Not everyone agreed. In one area, however, there was a means test: the agricultural gifts to the poor specified in the Bible were restricted to those who owned less than 200 zuz.33 Here, it seems scarce resources forced the rabbis into preferring a distribution amongst those in greatest need.

Preserving the self-respect of the poor

The conception of charity in Judaism is distinctive. Although I have used the word, the Hebrew term used by both the Bible and the rabbis

- izedakah - belongs to the notion of justice rather than benevolence; and reflects the idea that since all property ultimately belongs to God, it is a sense of equity rather than of generosity that commands giving to others. The giving of charity could therefore be coerced by communal sanction and was formally organised on a community basis. From the earliest rabbinic times there were such institutions as the tamhui, which distributed food daily to whoever applied; the kuppah, or community chest, which distributed money weekly to the poor of the city, together with specific funds for clothing, raising dowries for poor brides, and providing burial expenses for the poor.34 Clearly, though, the distribution of charity in certain cases - such as applying the rule of making good a person's previous living standards

- called for fine human judgement. Decisions were made by a panel of three scholars, and the responsibility that rested with them was formidable. Rabbi Jose said, and we can sense what he felt. "May my share of responsibility be among the collectors of the charity fund, and not among its distributors".35

Poverty was therefore given a definition which went beyond a lack of basic necessities, and which called for case-by-case investigation. The entire legislation was governed by fastidious regard for the feelings of the recipient of aid, for his preservation of self-respect. Clearly, though, the definition itself was cause and effect of a particular social structure, community-based and administered by delegates of the community. One can see the sensitive transition from the Biblical to a more trade and money-based economy. But how one would secure these same situational values within a modern political structure is altogether less clear.


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