Parashat Ki Tisa – Parashat Para
What is Poverty?
-Rabbi Dr. Dror Ficksler-
In the context of the commandment to bring the “half shekel,” which constitutes the introductory passage of this week’s parasha, the Torah presents us with the egalitarian nature of all activity related to the Temple: “The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel, with which to give the offering to Hashem, to atone for your souls.”
The Torah itself does not define the terms “rich” and “poor,” which raises the question of how the Sages explained these terms. What is even more interesting is the question of whether there is any association between the Jewish definition for these terms and their accepted definition in today’s economic climate.
The Sages of the Mishnah in tractate Pe’ah set the poverty line as a derivative of the need to receive daily and weekly assistance, with the right to be called a “pauper,” i.e. to have the right to receive the gifts that the Torah has granted to the poor, afforded on that basis: "He who has the means for two meals, must not accept anything from the charity dish; and if he has for fourteen meals, he may not accept any support from the communal fund. The communal fund is collected by two and distributed by three people. He who possesses two hundred zuz, may not take ‘gleanings’, the forgotten sheaf, pe'ah or the poor man's tithe. If he possesses two hundred minus one dinar, then even if a thousand [men] each give him [one zuz], he may accept. If his property is mortgaged unto his creditors or to the kethubah of his wife, he may accept. They cannot compel him to sell his house or his tools. If a man possesses fifty zuz and he uses them for his business, he must not take [the poor gifts]."
The tamhui (charity dish) is the term used to delineate freshly cooked food provided to the poor on a daily basis. The modern equivalent of this type of institution is the soup kitchen, which provides the underprivileged with food. The kupa (communal fund) mentioned in the Mishnah is the fund from which money was distributed to those in need. Money for the kupa was collected and distributed on a weekly basis.
The differing nature of the tamhui and the kupa (one was distributed daily and the other weekly) attests to the different character of those who were entitled to receive the distributions. The criteria for receiving the benefit of one were different than those of the other. Only someone who did not have sufficient means for acquiring food for even one day could partake of the tamhui. Generally, these were guests and travelers who were considered poor on a temporary basis. On the other hand, those who were eligible for the kupa were those who did not have enough for food for a week.
It seems that the modern day equivalent of the kupa is social security and the support provided by social services. Everyone must pay social security levies on a monthly basis and these are then distributed to the under privileged, also on a monthly basis, with each recipient afforded support based on individual need (child allowances, geriatric benefits, salary supplements, unemployment benefits, etc.). An additional level of poverty mentioned by the Mishnah is defined as those who receive the "poor gifts." For this level, the Sages set a hard line of demarcation, two hundred zuz. The Aruch (a Talmudic and midrashic dictionary, authored by Rabbi Nathan of Rome, 11 century Italy), in the entry for the word zuz, wrote that "the zuz and the dinar are one and the same." The dinar is the equivalent weight in silver to 96 grains of barley. Thus, 200 zuz are equal to approximately 20,000 grains of barley in silver. The accepted weight of a grain of barley is approximately 0.045 grams, so that 20,000 grains of barley equals approximately 1 kilogram of silver, which in today's market is priced at approximately 2,000 New Israeli Shekels (about $550). This is what most closely approximates what today we term "minimum wage." According to this benchmark, anyone who does not make minimum wage is eligible to receive "poor gifts."
As opposed to the Sages' method for determining poverty, there are three accepted tests used today for making this determination:
Relative poverty. According to this method, a poor person is someone whose salary level is considerably lower than the majority of the residents of his local environment (country or state). Based on this assessment, a significant, but equal and across the board, improvement in the overall financial means of the entire population will not affect the percentage of people who are considered to be under the poverty line. This approach is accepted today in Israel and in most countries around the world. In Israel, the poverty line is defined as 50% of external income, with the calculation made on the basis of the number of adults in a standard home. Thus, the poverty line for an individual is significantly lower than for a family with three children.
The second method for determining the poverty line is based on a base group of goods that are considered to be basic and necessary for maintaining a standard and healthy lifestyle. The assessment then is made based on how many people cannot afford to purchase this base group of goods. What is included in the "basket" varies from locale to locale, as people in different places require different things.
The third method is based on an arbitrary determination of a relatively low income level and the computation of the relative portion of society whose income is below that level. This method assesses "absolute poverty" and it is used primarily by international eva luation systems for which it is difficult to accurately define a base "basket" of goods. The "absolute poverty" line is defined by the United Nations as a daily income of 2 US dollars.
If we try and compare the definition for poverty used by the Sages with those used today, it would appear that the Mishnah utilized the latter two modern eva luation tools in order to assess who was eligible to receive assistance from the tamhui and the kupa (defining a set "basket" of base goods is comparable to the Sages' determination of 14 weekly meals and the set amount of 200 zuz as determining eligibility for "poor gifts" is comparable to the "absolute poverty" line). It follows, then, that the first, relative, method, which is utilized today in Israel and many other countries, does not fit with the Sages' attitude that it is necessary and mandatory to assist those who are actually in need, while it is not obligatory to maintain those who are less fortunate than others solely on a relative scale.
This conclusion shows how the laws of charity direct their focus not at the wealth of the rich person but at the poverty of the poor. The laws of charity direct us to provide assistance to the poor in ways that will also create greater wealth for the rich (or at least protect their financial wellbeing), and it is for this reason that relative eva luations of poverty are not effective. The laws of charity place a minimal emphasis on providing grants and gifts (what is today known as transfer payments), while
stress is placed on providing assistance in the form of loans or creation of employment prospects. This type of assistance generates the opportunity for members of the lower levels of society to elevate themselves above their current situation without negatively affecting the wealth of its upper echelons. Thus, the Sages attempt to utilize charity not only to negate the social divide, but also to provide solutions for the issue of poverty in general.
Rabbi Dr. Dror Ficksler - is a Tsohar rabbi and the rabbi of the Ganei Tikva community in Petach Tikva.