Distributive Justice

The Jewish practice of tzedaka, or support for poor people, is an expression of the Torah's commitment to tzedek, or justice. Biblical texts describe the regular redistribution of land and remission of debts so that disparities of wealth are held in check. In Rabbinic law, contributions for the poor are required from individuals, and sustenance of the poor is a communal obligation.

The Torah's vision of social justice is very distant from today's reality, in which great disparities between rich and poor have been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. There are disproportionate rates of illness and death among poor people and people of color. A lack of healthcare means that poor people have higher rates of co-morbidities that make them more vulnerable to the virus. While some of the working poor are doing risky essential work, others have lost work and can't pay for food. When the risk of the illness is not fairly distributed, how can we use our individual and communal resources to advance justice?

Extending Loans and Remitting Debt

(א) מִקֵּ֥ץ שֶֽׁבַע־שָׁנִ֖ים תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה שְׁמִטָּֽה׃ (ב) וְזֶה֮ דְּבַ֣ר הַשְּׁמִטָּה֒ שָׁמ֗וֹט כָּל־בַּ֙עַל֙ מַשֵּׁ֣ה יָד֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַשֶּׁ֖ה בְּרֵעֵ֑הוּ לֹֽא־יִגֹּ֤שׂ אֶת־רֵעֵ֙הוּ֙ וְאֶת־אָחִ֔יו כִּֽי־קָרָ֥א שְׁמִטָּ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃ (ג) אֶת־הַנָּכְרִ֖י תִּגֹּ֑שׂ וַאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה לְךָ֛ אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ תַּשְׁמֵ֥ט יָדֶֽךָ׃ (ד) אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן כִּֽי־בָרֵ֤ךְ יְבָֽרֶכְךָ֙ יְהוָ֔ה בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹֽתֵן־לְךָ֥ נַחֲלָ֖ה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃ (ה) רַ֚ק אִם־שָׁמ֣וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַ֔ע בְּק֖וֹל יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃ (ו) כִּֽי־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ בֵּֽרַכְךָ֔ כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְהַֽעֲבַטְתָּ֞ גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֗ים וְאַתָּה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲבֹ֔ט וּמָֽשַׁלְתָּ֙ בְּגוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֔ים וּבְךָ֖ לֹ֥א יִמְשֹֽׁלוּ׃ (ס) (ז) כִּֽי־יִהְיֶה֩ בְךָ֨ אֶבְי֜וֹן מֵאַחַ֤ד אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ בְּאַחַ֣ד שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּאַ֨רְצְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ לֹ֧א תְאַמֵּ֣ץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֗ וְלֹ֤א תִקְפֹּץ֙ אֶת־יָ֣דְךָ֔ מֵאָחִ֖יךָ הָאֶבְיֽוֹן׃ (ח) כִּֽי־פָתֹ֧חַ תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֖ ל֑וֹ וְהַעֲבֵט֙ תַּעֲבִיטֶ֔נּוּ דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֶחְסַ֖ר לֽוֹ׃ (ט) הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֡ פֶּן־יִהְיֶ֣ה דָבָר֩ עִם־לְבָבְךָ֨ בְלִיַּ֜עַל לֵאמֹ֗ר קָֽרְבָ֣ה שְׁנַֽת־הַשֶּׁבַע֮ שְׁנַ֣ת הַשְּׁמִטָּה֒ וְרָעָ֣ה עֵֽינְךָ֗ בְּאָחִ֙יךָ֙ הָֽאֶבְי֔וֹן וְלֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן ל֑וֹ וְקָרָ֤א עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֔ה וְהָיָ֥ה בְךָ֖ חֵֽטְא׃ (י) נָת֤וֹן תִּתֵּן֙ ל֔וֹ וְלֹא־יֵרַ֥ע לְבָבְךָ֖ בְּתִתְּךָ֣ ל֑וֹ כִּ֞י בִּגְלַ֣ל ׀ הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה יְבָרֶכְךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכָֽל־מַעֲשֶׂ֔ךָ וּבְכֹ֖ל מִשְׁלַ֥ח יָדֶֽךָ׃ (יא) כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ׃ (ס)

(1) Every seventh year you shall make a remission of debts. (2) This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the LORD. (3) You may dun the foreigner; but you must remit whatever is due you from your kinsmen. (4) There shall be no needy among you—since the LORD your God will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion— (5) if only you heed the LORD your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. (6) For the LORD your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you. (7) If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. (8) Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. (9) Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will incur guilt. (10) Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the LORD your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. (11) For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to your brother, to your poor and needy in your land.

This passage from Deuteronomy prescribes the remission of debt every seven years, an institution that would have mitigated disparities of wealth, disrupting cycles of impoverishment.

  • Note the striking divergence between verse 4 and verse 11. At first the Torah says, "There shall be no needy among you," and then the passage concludes, "there will never cease to be needy ones in your land." How do you account for the discrepancy between these two verses? What changes over the course of the passage?
  • Within this context, "opening one's hand" to the needy does not mean giving charity or tzedaka, but rather extending loans. Why do you think the Torah emphasizes interest-free loans as the best response to economic need? To what degree is the Torah's preference for interest-free, forgivable loans expressed in today's society?
  • Here, the commandment to sustain the needy relates to one's "kinsman" and to the needy "in your land." Why do you think the Torah prioritizes the needs of some poor people over others? In today's global economy, who counts as kinsman? How do we define the bounds of our own responsibilities?

(לה) וְכִֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָ֥טָה יָד֖וֹ עִמָּ֑ךְ וְהֶֽחֱזַ֣קְתָּ בּ֔וֹ גֵּ֧ר וְתוֹשָׁ֛ב וָחַ֖י עִמָּֽךְ׃ (לו) אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ עִמָּֽךְ׃

(35) If your kinsman is brought low, and his hand is weak with you, hold him up as though a resident alien, let him live with you: (36) do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live with you as your kinsman.

(א) [א] "וכי ימוך אחיך ומטה ידו עמך"-- אל תניחהו לירד. הא למה זה דומה? למשא על גבי החמור. עודנו במקומו -- אחד תופס בו ומעמידו. נפל לארץ -- חמשה אין מעמידין אותו.

(1) 1) (Lev 25:35) "If your kinsman is brought low, and his hand is weak with you": Do not allow him to drop. To what may this be compared? To a burden upon a donkey. So long as it is still in its place, a single person can grab onto it and set it aright. Once it has fallen to the ground, not even five can get it back up again.

The language in Leviticus 25:35 is somewhat obscure, prompting the Rabbis to expand on what it means to "hold up" a kinsman in the Sifra, an early work of midrash.

  • Sifra makes an analogy to a donkey whose burden is slipping from his back. How does this analogy relate to the experience of slipping into poverty?
  • What does this midrash imply about how to extend loans and credit to those who are financially insecure?
  • What does it mean to "hold someone up?' In what ways do we do this as individuals? In what ways do we do this communally?
  • The economic upheaval of the pandemic means huge numbers of people are slipping into circumstances of urgent need. What does the Rabbis' charge--"Do not allow him to drop"--ask of us right now?

(ג) פְּרוֹזְבּוּל, אֵינוֹ מְשַׁמֵּט. זֶה אֶחָד מִן הַדְּבָרִים שֶׁהִתְקִין הִלֵּל הַזָּקֵן, כְּשֶׁרָאָה שֶׁנִּמְנְעוּ הָעָם מִלְּהַלְווֹת זֶה אֶת זֶה וְעוֹבְרִין עַל מַה שֶּׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה (דברים טו) הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן יִהְיֶה דָבָר עִם לְבָבְךָ בְּלִיַּעַל וְגוֹ', הִתְקִין הִלֵּל לַפְּרוֹזְבּוּל:

(3) [A loan secured by] a prozbul is not cancelled. This was one of the things enacted by Hillel the elder; for when he observed people refraining from lending to one another, and thus transgressing what is written in the Torah, “Beware, lest you harbor the base thought, [‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing.]” Hillel enacted the prozbul.

The Mishnah describes a legal reform--"the Prozbul"-- introduced by Hillel, the ancient sage. Hillel observed that while the biblically ordained remission of debt was meant to relieve the suffering of needy people, in fact it was having the opposite effect. In Hillel's time, debt remission was undermining lenders' readiness to extend loans.

  • How can Hillel's enactment serve as a model for how to respond to changing social realities?
  • Can you think of any policies or institutions in our own age which were initiated for good ends but are perpetuating harm nonetheless?

Acknowledging the Debt of Slavery

While the Torah's vision for social justice exceeds our present reality in some ways, there is one striking way that it falls short--the Torah allows for the institution of slavery.

As we today continue to live out the devastating results of race-based slavery within the United States, it is important to acknowledge and confront this aspect of Jewish tradition. There are important differences between the forms of human enslavement that are described in the Torah and those that were practiced in the United States.

Even as we repudiate the legacy of slavery in both Jewish and American life, the protections that the Torah extends to freed people offers an illuminating model for addressing the moral and material debt to the descendants of slaves in our own time.

(יב) כִּֽי־יִמָּכֵ֨ר לְךָ֜ אָחִ֣יךָ הָֽעִבְרִ֗י א֚וֹ הָֽעִבְרִיָּ֔ה וַעֲבָֽדְךָ֖ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֑ים וּבַשָּׁנָה֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תְּשַׁלְּחֶ֥נּוּ חָפְשִׁ֖י מֵעִמָּֽךְ׃ (יג) וְכִֽי־תְשַׁלְּחֶ֥נּוּ חָפְשִׁ֖י מֵֽעִמָּ֑ךְ לֹ֥א תְשַׁלְּחֶ֖נּוּ רֵיקָֽם׃ (יד) הַעֲנֵ֤יק תַּעֲנִיק֙ ל֔וֹ מִצֹּ֣אנְךָ֔ וּמִֽגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶ֑ךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר בֵּרַכְךָ֛ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ תִּתֶּן־לֽוֹ׃ (טו) וְזָכַרְתָּ֗ כִּ֣י עֶ֤בֶד הָיִ֙יתָ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַֽיִּפְדְּךָ֖ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה הַיּֽוֹם׃ (טז) וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־יֹאמַ֣ר אֵלֶ֔יךָ לֹ֥א אֵצֵ֖א מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֤י אֲהֵֽבְךָ֙ וְאֶת־בֵּיתֶ֔ךָ כִּי־ט֥וֹב ל֖וֹ עִמָּֽךְ׃ (יז) וְלָקַחְתָּ֣ אֶת־הַמַּרְצֵ֗עַ וְנָתַתָּ֤ה בְאָזְנוֹ֙ וּבַדֶּ֔לֶת וְהָיָ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֶ֣בֶד עוֹלָ֑ם וְאַ֥ף לַאֲמָתְךָ֖ תַּעֲשֶׂה־כֵּֽן׃ (יח) לֹא־יִקְשֶׁ֣ה בְעֵינֶ֗ךָ בְּשַׁלֵּֽחֲךָ֙ אֹת֤וֹ חָפְשִׁי֙ מֵֽעִמָּ֔ךְ כִּ֗י מִשְׁנֶה֙ שְׂכַ֣ר שָׂכִ֔יר עֲבָֽדְךָ֖ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֑ים וּבֵֽרַכְךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֶֽׂה׃ (פ)

(12) If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. (13) When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: (14) Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the LORD your God has blessed you. (15) Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today. (16) But should he say to you, “I do not want to leave you”—for he loves you and your household and is happy with you— (17) you shall take an awl and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall become your slave in perpetuity. Do the same with your female slave. (18) When you do set him free, do not feel aggrieved; for in the six years he has given you double the service of a hired man. Moreover, the LORD your God will bless you in all you do.

This passage from Deuteronomy 15 is the continuation of the instruction about sabbatical years that is presented above.

  • Why do you think the Torah connects legislation about poverty to legislation about slavery? What connections do you see?
  • Based on this passage, how would you characterize the biblical attitude about slavery?
  • What are some differences between how slavery is practiced in this passage and how it was practiced in America?
  • What ethical messages can you draw from this passage about how to address the persistent wealth gap between Black people and white people in the United States?
  • What roles can the Jewish community play in addressing racial injustice?

Relief and Mutual Support

(ט) וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶם֙ אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֔ם לֹ֧א תְכַלֶּ֛ה פְּאַ֥ת שָׂדְךָ֖ לִקְצֹ֑ר וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִֽירְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תְלַקֵּֽט׃ (י) וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
(9) When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. (10) You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.

(ז) אֵין פּוֹחֲתִין לֶעָנִי הָעוֹבֵר מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם מִכִּכָּר בְּפוּנְדְיוֹן, מֵאַרְבַּע סְאִין בְּסֶלַע. לָן, נוֹתְנִין לוֹ פַּרְנָסַת לִינָה. שָׁבַת, נוֹתְנִין לוֹ מְזוֹן שָׁלשׁ סְעֻדּוֹת. מִי שֶׁיֶּשׁ לוֹ מְזוֹן שְׁתֵּי סְעֻדּוֹת, לֹא יִטֹּל מִן הַתַּמְחוּי. מְזוֹן אַרְבַּע עֶשְׂרֵה סְעֻדּוֹת, לֹא יִטֹּל מִן הַקֻּפָּה. וְהַקֻּפָּה נִגְבֵּית בִּשְׁנַיִם, וּמִתְחַלֶּקֶת בִּשְׁלשָׁה:

(ח) מִי שֶׁיֶּשׁ לוֹ מָאתַיִם זוּז, לֹא יִטֹּל לֶקֶט שִׁכְחָה וּפֵאָה וּמַעְשַׂר עָנִי. הָיוּ לוֹ מָאתַיִם חָסֵר דִּינָר, אֲפִלּוּ אֶלֶף נוֹתְנִין לוֹ כְאַחַת, הֲרֵי זֶה יִטֹּל. הָיוּ מְמֻשְׁכָּנִים לְבַעַל חוֹבוֹ אוֹ לִכְתֻבַּת אִשְׁתּוֹ, הֲרֵי זֶה יִטֹּל. אֵין מְחַיְּבִין אוֹתוֹ לִמְכֹּר אֶת בֵּיתוֹ וְאֶת כְּלֵי תַשְׁמִישׁוֹ:

(7) One does not give a poor person wandering from place to place less than a pundion's* worth of bread at a time when four seahs [of wheat cost] one sela.

If he spends the night, one gives him sustenance for his night's stay. If he spends Shabbat, one gives him enough food for three meals.

One who has the money for two meals may not take from the tamhui (soup kitchen). And one with money for fourteen meals may not take from the communal fund. The communal fund is collected by two people and distributed by three people.

(8) One who has two hundred zuz may not take gleanings, the forgotten sheaves, peah or the tithe for the poor. One who has one dinar less than two hundred--even if a thousand people donate to him at the same time--may take [gleanings, etc]. One whose money is mortgaged to a creditor or committed to his wife’s ketubah may take. We do not force him to sell his house or his tools.

*pundion, or dupondium, is a Roman coin.

Among the institutions that biblical law establishes to provide sustenance for the needy are the edges of the field (peah), which go unharvested; fallen and forgotten sheaves; and fruits that are left unpicked. To these agriculturally-based institutions, rabbinic law adds other modes of organized communal support.

  • The above passage from Leviticus recognizes the poor and the stranger as the primary beneficiaries of support. Elsewhere, the Torah identifies other marginalized groups, such as widows and orphans. What structures or conditions made these groups vulnerable in ancient times? What structures or conditions contribute to economic insecurity now?
  • In the Mishnah, what criteria does a person need to meet before qualifying for support? How do you distinguish between the functions of the tamhui and the communal fund? What contemporary institutions are equivalent to the kinds of aid described in the Mishnah?
  • Why do you think the Mishnah specifies that one may receive support even if one is in possession of a house and tools?
  • The Mishnah presumes that communities will be organized to collect and disburse monies for the needy within their borders. Given the mobility that characterizes life today, what is the best way to set boundaries for our responsibilities? Do you think of your communal responsibilities as extending toward your neighborhood? Your municipality? Your synagogue? Your local Jewish community?

Even as the Torah acknowledges economic inequity as a feature of social existence, ancient Jewish law establishes institutions and enacts procedures to mitigate disparities of wealth, prevent abject poverty and acknowledge the moral obligations incurred by slavery. Communal institutions protect the vulnerable from grinding debt, from hunger, and from homelessness.

In this time of crisis, how can we enact our Jewish responsibilities to shore up those who are most vulnerable? What institutions and practices can we strengthen or change so that we can counteract societal forces and structures that perpetuate economic and racial inequities? As individuals and as communities, how can we promote fairness and justices through the actions we take and the decisions we make?