Who, and What, Does Charity Strengthen?

Yisrael Medad,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Yisrael Medad
I am a resident of Shiloh, with my wife and children, and now grandchildren, since 1981, having come on Aliyah in 1970. I have served in a volunteer capacity as a Yesha Council spokesperson, twice a member of Amana's secretariat, Benjamin Regional Council plenum member and mayor of Shiloh. I was a parliamentary aide for Geula Cohen and two other MKs, an advisor to a Minister, vice-chairman and executive director of Israel's Media Watch and was Information and Content Resource coordinator for the Begin Heritage Center. I am now Deputy Editor of the critical edition in anthology of Jabotinsky's writing in English.

Almost three years ago, I published a two part article on why the phenomenon of HaYovel volunteers who toil in the vineyards of Judea and Samaria should be welcome. Part One is here. Part Two is here. Since then they have gained the approbation of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in addition to other Rabbinical approvals such as Rabbi Eliezer Melamed. Moreover, HaYovel's founder Tommy Waller has come out with a powerful message.

This is a follow-up article touching on the question of the permissibility of Jews accepting charitable benefit from non-Jews. As such, I need quote and illustrate from classical Jewish sources.  At the end, I sum up my thinking.

The volunteer efforts of non-Jews in the fields and vineyards of Judea and Samaria have met some opposition despite the support of rabbis as well as the total lack of any evidence of wrongdoing such as proselytizing. The complaints of the traditional fear of proselytizing activities and missionary work have no basis in fact after more than a decade of HaYovel activity.  It has proven to be non-existent.  A second argumentation is raised based on an interpretation of the laws of charity and why a Jew should not accept such charity. That I address below/

The source is found in the Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra 10b-11a.

Rav Ammi is the recipient of 400 dinars contributed by Ifra Hormiz, the mother of King Shapur.  He refused them. However, Raba did accept them. His reason was that she would be offended and the King would become angry and Jews would suffer as a result.

R. Ammi was quite upset with Raba and quoted to him the verse in Isaiah 27:11, “When the boughs thereof are withered they shall be broken off, the women shall come and set them on fire?” which is taken as describing God’s retribution to those who acted badly towards the house of Jacob which then will take root and against Israel which will blossom. In other words, their beliefs will be proven unsustainable. Raba defended himself by explaining that he had shared the gift with or even awarded it all to non-Jews.

A second incident is mentioned there involving a King Monobaz of Adiabene who lived in the first century C.E. who also distributed charity. Adiabene was an ancient kingdom in Assyria, its capital at Arbela (modern-day Arbil, Iraq). Adiabenian rulers converted to Judaism from paganism in the 1st century. Queen Helena of Adiabene (known in Jewish sources as Heleni HaMalka) moved to Jerusalem where she built palaces for herself and her sons, Izates bar Monobaz and Monobaz II at the northern part of the city of David, south of the Temple Mount, and aided Israel in their war with Rome. According to the Talmud, both Helena and Monobaz donated large funds for the Temple of Jerusalem.

Replying to an accusation of squandering his wealth, Monobaz replied: 'My fathers stored up below and I am storing above, as it says,“Truth springs out of the earth and righteousness looks down from heaven” (Psalms 85:12) […and] I have stored in a place which cannot be tampered with, as it says, “Righteousness and judgment are the foundation of his throne” (Psalms 92:2)…[and] I have stored something which does produce fruits, as it is written, “Say ye of the righteous [zaddik] that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat of the fruit of their doings” (Isaiah 3:10).  The text continues but this is enough.

His quoting Biblical verses is viewed as the king being a man of faith, in this context, not a convert to Judaism (or not yet) seeking Divine approval for his acts and deeds. Moreover, and more importantly from a Jewish perspective, in doing so, he is considered as one whose act of charity strengthens his faith and that he expects to be rewarded by God. In other words, this charity is seen as benefiting the non-Jew and, in that category, a Jew should not accept the handout. Thus ruled the Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh Deah, paragraph 254, section 2: “If an idolatrous official sent money to a Jew as charity, it should not be returned to him, to maintain peace, but it should be taken and given in secret as charity to gentiles, so that the officer shall not hear of it.” The Shach gave a reason: “But not to needy Jews, as is written, ‘When its crown is withered’…when their merit runs out and the moisture of their acts of charity dries, then they will break.”

Alyssa M. Gray thinks this was a “Jewish-Christian conversation” that took place in fourth-century Mesopotamia, not three centuries earlier. It presents rabbinic responses to several Christian claims: contra Aphrahat, a Syriac-Christian author of the third century from the Adiabene region, who composed a series of twenty-three expositions or homilies on points of Christian doctrine and practice, (1) God and Israel have a continuing and uniquely close relationship; (2) contra Aphrahat, Gentile charity is motivated by the desire for self-aggrandizement, the continuation of Gentile rule, and arrogance, and is thus sinful; (3) contra Aphrahat, Gentile charity is sinful because they only engage in it to revile Israel; moreover, Gentile charity does not atone for their sins; and (4) contra Aphrahat (who quotes Ezek. 15:4 and Isa. 58:11), it is not the Jews who will be dried out and burned up with fire; once Gentile charity ceases, it is the Gentile empires who will burn.

But this is preceded by a more theological aggadic (non-legal) discussion on page 10b.

Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai asks his disciples, on the background of Artaxerxes who wrote to the Governor of Jerusalem as recorded in Ezra VI, 10 when he ordered him to give Ezra all that he required “That they may offer sacrifices of sweet savor unto the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and of his sons”, what is the meaning of the verse in Proverbs 14:34, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but the kindness of the peoples is a sin?”  R. Eliezer answered the meaning of 'the kindness of the peoples is sin' is that all the charity and kindness done by the heathen we consider a sin, because they only do it to magnify themselves.

R. Joshua’s answer was that yes, the “kindness of peoples is a sin” but that their charity is considered a sin because they only do it in order that their dominion may be prolonged. For Rabban Gamaliel they only do it to display haughtiness. R. Eliezer the Modiite added that in his opinion that the charity of non-Jews is only done so as to reproach we Jews.

R. Nehuniah b. ha-Kanah was of a different interpretation.  Righteous acts represent a sin-offering for the nations which R. Johanan b. Zakkai explained as a superior insight to all the others in that just as the sin-offering makes atonement for Israel, so charity makes atonement for the heathen.

Whereas four of the disciples view a non-Jew’s charity to a Jew in a negative light, R. Ben Zakkai understands R. Nehuniah as implying it is a sacrificial act that provides atonement.

Amazingly, as Hanan Balk, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudas Israel in Cincinnati, Ohio, points out in Ḥakirah, 2013, the Vilna Gaon, R. Eliyahu, in his commentary on Proverbs, not only does he not reference the Talmudic discussion of this verse, he offers his own original interpretation: “When the nations give charity, those nations will be elevated…and when they do acts of loving kindness, not only will they be elevated, but it will also be [considered as] sinful for the Jewish People, for their [i.e., Israel’s] merit will thereby be lacking. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, must pay their reward in this world…and the reward of a mitzvah is great.”

The Gaon introduces an interpretation that is in complete opposition to the view of R. Yoḥanan ben Zakkai and counters that the nations’ charitable acts are indeed of a benevolent value.  Sin is to be assigned only to acts Jews do, or do not do, that run in contravention of the Biblical commands. Only Jews sin and so the concept of a sin-offering is not relevant (which leads to another discussion not relevant here).

On the one hand, this outlook could be viewed as seeking to deny Jews the right to receive charity because if the non-Jew gains a reward from it, the Jew will consequently and in parallel lose merit.  On the other, why should a Jew be required to suffer a loss if the non-Jew is rewarded? Why should there be this attachment and link between the two acts?  There surely can exist independently especially if the non-Jew is not seeking a reward of recompense.

To summarize at this point, whereas there is a strongly-supported view that considers any charity done by a non-Jew on behalf of a Jew as wrong and not to be accepted, there is an alternative view which sees great merit in such acts.

In a responsum of R. Moshe Feinstein from the 16th of Cheshvan 5761-1960 in reply to R. Yisrael Schepansky who had noted that the Rambam, in his Mishnah Commentary to Terumot 3;9, explained that even though non-Jews are not obligated in giving terumah [a gift offering of 13 specific categories to the Tabernacle], they still get reward for doing so, which is why the terumah they designate qualifies as actual terumah, Rav Feinstein calls it an exception.  It is as a donation to hekdesh [anything having to do with the Temple and not of the specific categories found in Exodus 25-27] and as charity, which is rooted in the Talmudic assumption in Sotah 47a that Balak is rewarded for his sacrifices in that Ruth and ultimately King Solomon issued from him and Baba Batra 4a’s view that Nevuchadnezzar’s giving charity was effective.

Rabbi Balk takes this further in analyzing the Rambam’s approach as codified in Laws of Kings 8:11: “Whoever accepts the seven [Noaḥide] commandments and is careful to observe them is considered to be of the righteous of the nations of the world and has a portion in the World to Come. But this is [only] so (“Ve-hu”) when he accepts and observes them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and made it known to us through Moses our teacher…” and he writes:

“Not only is there no distinction between the normative intention of a Jew and a non-Jew in the performance of a religious act for the sake of Heaven, but moreover, a non-Jew attains the World to Come if he accepts the Noaḥide laws specifically for the sake of Heaven…a non-Jew may even fulfill commandments beyond the seven in which he is obligated [as long as] he admits to the prophecy of Moses our teacher, who was commanded this from the exalted God, and believes in this, and that he not do it for any other reason or due to some opinion that he saw fit on his own.” (Pe’er ha-Dor, no. 60)…R. David B. Zimri (Radvaz) explains that the intent of Maimonides’ ruling is to grant permission to non-Jews to add to their commandments, so long as they understand that the additional commandments that they have chosen to fulfill are not commanded of them, but that they are doing them specifically to receive reward.”

It is quite apparent that the acts of volunteer work accomplished by those of HaYovel, which I have witnessed for over a decade and have discussed with their leaders, are being done out of recognition that what is happening today in Israel is God-directed as prophesized in the Bible and on behalf of the Jewish People. They are toiling in the fields, living in Spartan conditions, paying their own way and making tremendous personal sacrifices. They are doing what they do not for themselves or for some dominant earthly power but in praise of God and in cognizance that the Jewish People are God’s chosen. They do it not for themselves, for their own reward or for the purpose of strengthening their religious beliefs but out of a simple acknowledgement that God’s words and those of His Prophets are being fulfilled in the deeds done by the Jews and they want to be a part of that.

Their efforts, their offerings, their dedication are our challenge and we are required, by our own laws and concepts, not to ignore them or reject them out-of-hand, but to come to terms with what they represent to our own Jewish concepts.