The Poor and Unfortunate – Deuteronomy 15:11

This is my seventh post on the commands in the Mosaic Law dealing with how the citizens of ancient Israel were to treat the poor and unfortunate in their nation. I am using the list of commands (mitzvots) on the poor and unfortunate I found at the Judaism 101 website. This week’s command is number fifty-two from the Judaism 101 list:

52.          To give charity according to one’s means (Deut. 15:11) (CCA38). See Tzedakah: Charity.

I am going to follow my usual procedure and quote the interpretation of this passage from the Concise Book of Mitzvoth to get the Jewish perspective on this passage and then follow-up by quoting from commentary by Gary Kukis (a contemporary dispensationalist) and Matthew Henry (a Presbyterian pastor who lived 300 years ago). I have felt the contrast between the commentaries to be interesting and enlightening.

Before I begin quoting there are two things I picked up on right away when going through the commentaries. At first I was bothered by the fact that the teaching in the Concise Book of Mitzvot (CBM) explicitly stated that this law only applies to the treatment of Jews by other Jews, Jews are not required to treat gentiles in the same way. After reading Gary Kukis’ comments on the same passage, I relaxed a bit because the original command was indeed aimed at how Jews were to treat their fellow Jews. When the Mosaic Law was given to Israel all Jews were part of the same nation, the words “Jew” and “Israel” were basically synonyms at that time and place. That isn’t the case anymore and begs the question: Is this a general principle to be applied to everyone or one meant specifically for the Jew? In contrast to the CBM commentary, the Christian commentaries treat it as a general principal to apply to all of your fellow citizens within the nation. I have to say that I agree with them and am tempted to go into the the parable of the Good Samaritan (that would get me off topic though).

As an application of this point I think it is fair to say that in our day and time an orthodox Jew would feel only an obligation to other Jews (no matter where they live) while I would feel only an obligation to my fellow citizens (no matter whether they are Christian or not). This is not an insignificant difference in interpretation!

The other thing that I really picked up on is the quote from the CBM commentary:

If a person coerces (persuades) others to give charity, his reward is greater than the reward of the one who gives. And whoever acts with compassion will be treated with compassion; as Scripture says, He shall show you mercy and have compassion upon you, and shall multiply you (D’varim 13:18).

I won’t comment on that extensively but I do think it explains why many Jews consider compulsory giving, often in the form of taxes, to truly be charitable giving. I don’t agree with that and I don’t think they can back that statement up with scripture. However, it does clear up for me why many (Orthodox?) Jews consider forcing me to “give” in the form of taxes to be charitable work. I don’t agree but now I understand where it comes from.

Now, here are the commentaries:

Mitzvot 52 (CCA38)

38. It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor in Jewry
as scripture says, You shall surely open your hand, etc. (D’varim 15:8 [Deuteronomy] 15:11); and the sages of blessed memory interpreted (Sifri, ad loc.): “you shall surely open” – even many times [when necessary]. And scripture states further, then you shall uphold him, the stranger and the sojourner [which means one who accepted the seven commandments of Noah – that we have duty to sustain him] that he may live along with you [Va-yikra [Leviticus] 25:35). And it is stated further, that your brother may live with you (ibid. 36).

One has to give according to what is suitable for the needy man and according to what he is lacking. If he has no clothing, he is to be clothed, and so provided with other things that he needs. If the donor’s means are not enough, he is to give as he is able to; and even a poor man who is sustained by charity has a duty to give charity to someone else.

A poor man who is related to him takes precedence over everyone else. The poor of one’s house take precedence over the poor of his town; the poor of his own town have precedence over the poor of another town – for scripture says, you shall surely open your hand to your brother, your poor man, and to your needy person in your land (D’varim [Deuteronomy] 15:11).

If someone sees a penniless person seeking alms and he hides his eye from him and gives him no charity, he disobeys a positive commandment and violates a negative one (see the section on prohibitions §62). This is a very severe transgression, and he is called a scoundrel, a sinner and a wicked person.

We are duty-bound to be more careful about the mitzvah than about all of the other positive commandments: for charity is a distinguishing characteristic of the descendants of Abraham. The throne of Jewry is not properly, nor can the faith of truth endure, except through charity; for Scripture says, Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and those of her that return, with charity (Yesha’yahu 1:27). So if anyone is merciless, his lineage has to be suspected; for the cruel lack of mercy is found only among the heathen, as Scripture says, they are cruel, and have no compassion (Yirmeyahu 50:42). All members of Jewry are as brothers, however: as Scripture says, You are the children of Hashem your God (D’varim 14:1).; and if a person won’t have compassion on his own brother, who will take pity on him? To whom should the poor in Jewry lift up their eyes beseeching help – to the heathen who hate them and persecute them? So their eyes look only to their brethren.

Now, it is necessary to give charity with a cheerful face, happily. Nothing bad ever results from charity. No one becomes poor from giving it; as Scripture says, the work of righteousness shall be peace (Yesha’yahu 32:17). It is necessary to calm and cheer a poor man with words, and it is forbidden to rebuke him or raise one’s voice to him in shouting, because his heart is broken. And woe to anyone who shames a poor man.

If a person coerces (persuades) others to give charity, his reward is greater than the reward of the one who gives. And whoever acts with compassion will be treated with compassion; as Scripture says, He shall show you mercy and have compassion upon you, and shall multiply you (D’varim 13:18).

As for redeeming people in captivity, there is no greater religious duty than that. Whoever hides his eye from that transgresses many positive and negative commandments.

It is in force everywhere, at every time, for both man and woman.

Gary Kukis (link here):

“Because the indigent one will not cease out of the land; therefore, I am commanding you, saying, You will, in opening, open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your indigent in your land. [Deut. 15:11]

Notice that in speaking to the Israelites, those in the land are their brothers, their poor, and their indigent. They are connected to the poor of their land. The poor in their land are their responsibility. The poor in our own country are our responsibility. How blessed is he who considers the poor; Yehowah will deliver him in a day of evil (Psalm 41:1). He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor (Prov. 22:9).

This obligation will never cease because there will always be the poor of the land. Our Lord said, “For the poor you always will have with you.” (Mark 14:7a; see also John 12:8). There are politicians and human do-gooders who think that they can remove poverty from the world—or, at least from the United States. Whereas, it is not wrong to carefully give to these organizations, this will never remove the poor from our land. Even in the best of societies under the most enlightened laws, the uncertainties of life and the variations among citizens result in some people becoming poor. In such cases the Lord commands that generosity and kindness be extended to them .

Occasionally one asserts that there is a contradiction between this verse and v. 4:”Except there shall be no poor among you, since Yehowah will certainly bless you in the land which Yehowah your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess.” This is cleared up by continuing into v. 5: “Only if you listen obediently to the voice of Yehowah your god, to observe carefully all this commandment which I am commanding you today.” As long as the Israelites are completely obedient, then God will bless them beyond anything they can imagine. In the situation where they are all prospering, then there is no need to release a debt. Paying back a debt is a sign of character. If Israel failed to fully obey God, then they would be under discipline and some would be in poverty. As I have mentioned many times before, God has a difficult time reaching those who are in prosperity. Those who are suffering heartaches and are in poverty, they are often responsive to God. So if God cannot reach us in prosperity and if we are not prospered due to disobedience, then He will contact us in discipline. A similar set of verses are found in 1John 2:1: I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin…

Matthew Henry (link here):

Sometimes there is as much charity in prudent lending as in giving, as it obliges the borrower to industry and honesty and may put him into a way of helping himself. We are sometimes tempted to think, when an object of charity presents itself, we may choose whether we will give any thing or nothing, little or much; whereas it is here an express precept (Deuteronomy 15:11), I command thee, not only to give, but to open thy hand wide, to give liberally. 3. Here is a caveat against that objection which might arise against charitable lending from the foregoing law for the release of debts (Deuteronomy 15:9): Beware that there be not a thought, a covetous ill-natured thought, in thy Belial heart, “The year of release is at hand, and therefore I will not lend what I must then be sure to lose;” lest thy poor brother, whom thou refusest to lend to, complain to God, and it will be a sin, a great sin, to thee. Note, (1.) The law is spiritual and lays a restraint upon the thoughts of the heart. We mistake if we think thoughts are free from the divine cognizance and check. (2.) That is a wicked heart indeed that raises evil thoughts from the good law of God, as theirs did who, because God had obliged them to the charity of forgiving, denied the charity of giving. (3.) We must carefully watch against all those secret suggestions which would divert us from our duty or discourage us in it. Those that would keep from the act of sin must keep out of their minds the very thought of sin. (4.) When we have an occasion of charitable lending, if we cannot trust the borrower, we must trust God, and lend, hoping for nothing again in this world, but expecting it will be recompensed in the resurrection of the just, Luke 6:35,14:14. (5.) It is a dreadful thing to have the cry of the poor against us, for God has his ear open to that cry, and, in compassion to them, will be sue to reckon with those that deal hardly with them. (6.) That which we think is our prudence often proves sin to us; he that refused to lend because the year of release was at hand thought he did wisely, and that men would praise him as doing well for himself, Psalms 49:18. But he is here told that he did wickedly, and that God would condemn him as doing ill to his brother; and we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth, and that what he says is sin to us will certainly be ruin to us if it be not repented of.

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