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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Social Justice– Circles of Responsibility

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on August 5, 2016)
Topics: Ethics, Halakha & Modernity, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Non-Jews & Other Religions, Tzedakah & Social Justice

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The Torah in many places obligates us to take care of our “brother”.  It is clear from many verses that this word often does not mean generically “another person,” but specifically someone of our tribe – a fellow member of the people of Israel.   Does this mean that we have no responsibility to those who are not Jewish?  How, in general, can we explain why our responsibilities should be limited to – or at least focused on – those our own people?  What does the Torah’s system tell us about the balance between universalism and particularism?


Different levels in the Torah

A classic contrast in the Torah is between “our brother” to whom we have obligations of care and support, and “the foreigner” to whom we do not.  Consider the verses from below regarding lending money to a poor person who asks {source ‎1} and not charging interest when we lend money {sources ‎2-‎3}.  What in these sources indicate – either explicitly or implicitly – that our obligation does not extend to someone who is not one of our people?  Who do you think is the nakhri in the verse?  Can you morally justify giving priority to one’s own people?  What other priorities emerge from the verses in Shemot {source ‎2}?

  1. Devarim 15:7   |   דברים ט”ו:ז
כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן:If there is among you a poor man of one of your brothers inside any of your gates in your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother

2. Shemot 22:24   |   שמות כ”ב::כ”ד

אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי אֶת הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ לֹא תִהְיֶה לוֹ כְּנֹשֶׁה לֹא תְשִׂימוּן עָלָיו נֶשֶׁךְIf thou lend money to any of My people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as a usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.

3. Devarim 23:20-21   |   דברים פרק כג:כ’-כ”א

(כ) לֹא תַשִּׁיךְ לְאָחִיךָ נֶשֶׁךְ כֶּסֶף נֶשֶׁךְ אֹכֶל נֶשֶׁךְ כָּל דָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׁךְ:

(כא) לַנָּכְרִי תַשִּׁיךְ וּלְאָחִיךָ לֹא תַשִּׁיךְ לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ עַל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר  אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:

20. You shall not lend upon interest to your brother; interest of money, interest of foodstuff, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest;

21. To a stranger you may lend upon interest; but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest; that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you set your hand to in the land where you are entering to possess.


Prioritizing those Closest to You

In Baba Metzia, the Gemara discusses priorities in lending money (a form of aid, in particular since no interest was charged and loans were canceled once every seven years) {source ‎4}.  Based on the verse from Shemot {source ‎2}, it establishes a hierarchy of priorities.  What two different sets of criteria does the Gemara give for determining who comes first?  Is the Gemara clear about which of these sets of criteria takes priority?  Does this Gemara give you any insight into why we might have a primary obligation to our own people?

4. Bavli, Baba Metzia, 71a    |   (.בבלי, בבא מציעא (עא

דתני רב יוסף: +שמות כ”ב+ אם כסף תלוה את עמי את העני עמך, עמי ונכרי – עמי קודם, עני ועשיר – עני קודם, ענייך ועניי עירך – ענייך קודמין, עניי עירך ועניי עיר אחרת – עניי עירך קודמין.

אמר מר: עמי ונכרי עמי קודם פשיטא! – אמר רב נחמן אמר לי הונא: לא נצרכא דאפילו לנכרי ברבית ולישראל בחנם.

R. Joseph taught: “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee:”  [this teaches, if the choice lies between] my people and a foreigner, ‘my people’ has preference; the poor or the rich — the ‘poor’ takes precedence; thy poor [sc. thy relatives] and the [general] poor of thy town — thy poor come first; the poor of thy city and the poor of another town — the poor of thine own town have prior rights.

The Master said: ‘[If the choice lies between] my people and a foreigner — “my people” has preference.’ But is it not obvious? — R. Nahman answered: Huna told me it means that even if [money is lent] to the foreginer on interest, and to the Israelite without [the latter should take precedence].

The above passage discusses two different sets of criteria for giving aid to others – one based on the degree of need, and the other based on the degree of proximity.  From one perspective, the only criterion that should matter is the degree of need.  Those who are worst off are the ones who must urgently need our help. While that may be rationally true, most of us feel a greater sense of not just emotional connection, but of moral responsibility, to those to whom we are closer to – because they are part of our family  (“your poor”), our community (“the poor of your city”), or our people (“your nation”).  It should also be mentioned that there is a form of proximity which relates not to one’s community, but to the reality of direct encounter.  When a person sees someone in need – asking for charity, or in need or urgent medical care – this direct encounter creates a special, heightened sense of responsibility.

The environmental movement has a slogan: “Think globally; act locally.” While we should care for the well-being of the entire planet and all people, we only have a limited amount of time, money, and resources.  We cannot fix all the problems of the planet and we have to start somewhere.  The best way to address the global problems is for each group focuses its efforts locally, while remaining conscious of and sensitive to the larger, global issues.

In regards to inter-personal ethics, it is also in our nature to feel a greater sense of responsibility towards those who are closest to us.  The Torah and halakha’s understanding of our ethical obligations is consistent with this intuition: the greater the degree of connection, the greater the obligation towards that person.  

See the op-ed below from David Brooks on this topic {source ‎5}.  What does Brooks identify as the moral reasons to prioritize those who are in your community?  Do you agree with this?  What other moral or practical reasons might be at play?

5. “We Take Care of Our Own,” David Brooks, NY Times, July 15, 2016

A few years ago, Bruce Springsteen came out with a song called “We Take Care of Our Own.” The chorus’s theme seemed upbeat and proud: We take care of the people closest to us. But like in a lot of Springsteen songs (including “Born in the U.S.A.”), the lyrics in the verses sit in tension with the lyrics in the chorus.

In the verses, it’s clear that taking care of our own also means not taking care of people who are not our own, like the victims of Katrina. Suddenly the phrase “We Take Care of Our Own” has an exclusivist, menacing and even racist tinge.

That phrase and the two different meanings it can have sit at the center of election 2016.

Donald Trump’s supporters stand for the first meaning. America’s first loyalty is to its own workers, its own culture, its own citizens.

This worldview is not just selfishness. For most of human history most people have prized coherent communities above all. They’ve built moral systems on loyalty and support for their own kin and fellow citizens. These bonds are not based on some abstract social contract. They are intimate bonds, born out of shared kinship, history, geography and common understandings of right and wrong.

People committed to coherent communities will fight to defend the norms that hold communities together. They accept immigrants who assimilate to existing culture, but they’ll be suspicious of those who they feel bring in incompatible customs and tear at the social fabric.

For eons, this was more or less the traditional moral system for most of the human race. But as the N.Y.U. social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out in an outstanding essay in The American Interest, over the past several decades a different mind-set has emerged.

People with this mind-set value the emancipated individual above the cohesive community. They value, or at least try to value, self-expression, social freedom and diversity. Their morality is not based on loyalty to people close to them; it’s based on a universal equality for all humans everywhere.

People with this mind-set disdain the political or religious walls that divide people. In his essay, Haidt cites John Lennon’s song “Imagine” as an expression of this worldview:

Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do 
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too 
Imagine all the people living life in peace 
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

People with this mind-set bridle at the exclusivist implications of the line “We Take Care of Our Own.” It’s fine to value Americans, but we should also take in the immigrant and be multilateral in our foreign relations.

Haidt argues that the division between these two camps is a division between the nationalists and the globalists. It’s also between the moral particularists and the moral universalists, between those who believe that blood and historic ties take precedence and those who, like the philosopher Peter Singer, argue that you have the same moral obligation to a boy starving to death in South Sudan as to a boy drowning in the lake in front of you.

For decades the globalist/universalist mind-set — pro-immigration, pro-globalization — has been on the march. Now, with Trump, the particularists are striking back. Immigration is the subject that fuels their ire.

As Haidt writes, “By the summer of 2015 [when the Syrian refugee crisis hit] the nationalist side was already at the boiling point, shouting ‘enough is enough, close the tap,’ when the globalists proclaimed, ‘let us open the floodgates, it’s the compassionate thing to do, and if you oppose us you are a racist.’ Might that not provoke even fairly reasonable people to rage?”

The fact is that both mind-sets have their virtues. The particularists emphasize the intimate love and loyalty that is the stuff of real community. The universalists are moved by injustices anywhere, and morally repulsed by inaction and indifference in the face of that suffering.

The tragedy of this election is that America already solved this problem. Unlike France and China, we were founded as a universalist nation. You can be fiercely patriotic and relatively open because America was founded to take in people from around the globe and unite them around something new.

Unfortunately, the forces of multiculturalism destroyed that commitment to cultural union. That has led to Trump, who has upended universalistic American nationalism and replaced it with European blood and soil nationalism in a stars and stripes disguise.

The way out of this debate is not to go nationalist or globalist. It’s to return to American nationalism — espoused by people like Walt Whitman — which combines an inclusive definition of who is Our Own with a fervent commitment to assimilate and Take Care of them.



The Ger of the Torah

Many people would identify with the idea that we have a primary responsibility to those closest to us when it comes to family and the like.  Some, however, balk at applying this idea to an affinity based solely on religion.  This is particularly true at a time when people have multiple circles of connection and multiple aspects to their identity (is someone a Jewish American or an American Jew).

It is helpful in this regard to understand better the primary identity that the Torah was referring to.  The basic lines of division in the Torah are not Jew/Gentile, but rather “your brother”/”the foreigner”.  In fact, there are three levels of division in the Torah: (1) those who are one of “you”: your brother; your people; the citizen, (2) those who are furthest from you: “the foreigner”; (3) those who are not one of you, but to whom you have an obligation of care: the ger.

Let us look a little closer at the case of the ger to gain a better understanding about the circles of responsibility in the Torah.

The Torah in many places demands that we not oppress the ger.  In the verses in Vayikra {source ‎6} the Torah goes beyond this and demands that we actively support the ger.  Note how we are prohibited to charge him interest, in contrast to the foreigner {source ‎3}.  While the Rabbis often interpret ger to refer to a convert, here its juxtaposition with toshav, resident, indicates that we are talking about someone who is living among us, but not one of us, a ger-toshav, a resident alien.  This, then, becomes an obligation to support a ger-toshav, although he is not a Jew, and Ramban even includes this as one of the 613 mitzvot {source ‎7}.

6. Vayirkra 25:35-36   |   ויקרא כ”ה:ל”ה-ל”ו

(לה) וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ:

(לו) אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱ-לֹהֶיךָ וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ

35. And if thy brother wax poor, and fall in decay with thee; then you shall relieve him:  if he be a resident alien, that he may live with thee.

36. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee.

7. Critique of Ramban to Rambam’s Book of Mitzvot, Positive Mitzvot Omitted, no. 15   |   השגות הרמב”ן לספר המצוות שכחת העשין, מצוה ט”ז

שנצטוינו להחיות גר תושב להציל לו מרעתו שאם היה טובע בנהר או נפל עליו הגל שבכל כחנו נטרח בהצלתו ואם היה חולה נתעסק ברפואתו…

והוא אמרו ית’ (פ’ בהר) וכי ימוך אחיך ומטה ידו עמך והחזקת בו גר ותושב וחי עמך. ומאמרם בתלמוד (פסחי’ כא ב, ע”ז כ א, חולין קיד ב) גר אתה מצווה עליו להחיותו גוי אין אתה מצווה עליו להחיותו.

That we are commanded to sustain the life of the resident-alien (ger toshav), and to save him from harm.  If he was drowning in a river, or a building collapsed on him, we must endeavor to save him with all of our effort.  And if he were sick, we should involve ourselves in his medical treatment…

And this is the intent of the verse: “And if your brother falters, and his hand slips with you, you should strengthen him, a resident-stranger (ger toshav) and he should live with you.  Similarly the Talmud states: “You are obligated to sustain the life of a resident-alien, but you are not obligated to do so for a heathan.” (Pesachim 21b).

But who is the ger in the Torah? As stated, the Rabbis generally understand this to be the convert.  This is not however the simple sense of the verses.  The ger is often contrasted to the citizen (“One law there shall be for you, for the ger and for the citizen of the land” – Vayikra 24:22).  The word ger itself means one who dwells, and the verse reminds us that we were gerim in the land of Egypt – not converts, but non-citizens who had taken up residence in the land.  Thus, the simple meaning of ger in the Torah is a resident-alien, a non-citizen dwelling in the land (in other words, every ger in the Torah is the ger toshav).  This is the radical nature of the Torah’s command regarding the ger – we must give the same rights to resident-aliens as we do to the citizens.   The ger stands in contrast to the nakhri, the foreigner who is living in another country.

This, then, are the three levels of circles of responsibility in the Torah –  

  1. Your brother/your nation/the citizen – these are the people that are “one of you” and for whom you have a primary responsibility.
  2. The ger – someone who is not one of you, but who is living among you, and to whom you must give equal treatment and support
  3. The nakhri – the foreigner who is living in another country, to whom you have no special responsibility towards.


Many people will be able to identify with this circles of responsibility.  Of course we have a greater responsibility to those in our country over those in another country.  Let France take care of its citizens, and we will take care of ours.  But how did these identities shift from nation-based to religion-based?

The answer is obvious – after the destruction of the Temple, and our loss of sovereignty over the land, we stopped being a people defined by land and nation, and became a people defined by religion.  

What did this new reality do to the identity of the ger in the Torah?  Some of those terms came to mean a convert – not someone who is not one of you but living among you, but rather someone who used to not be on of you, but now is so.  But what about the ger that clearly refers to someone other than you?  This was the identified as the ger toshav.   And who was the ger toshav?  This was debated in the Talmud.

See the passage below from Avoda Zara {source ‎8}.  What is the basic measuring stick which is used to determine a person’s identity as a ger toshav?  How is proximity being defined in this source?

8. Bavli, Avoda Zara 64b   |   (:מסכת עבודה זרה (סד

איזהו גר תושב? כל שקיבל עליו בפני ג’ חברים שלא לעבוד עבודת כוכבים, דברי ר”מ

וחכ”א: כל שקיבל עליו שבע מצות שקבלו עליהם בני נח

אחרים אומרים: אלו לא באו לכלל גר תושב, אלא איזהו גר תושב? זה גר אוכל נבילות שקבל עליו לקיים כל מצות האמורות בתורה חוץ מאיסור נבילות

Who is a ger toshav? Any [Gentile] who takes upon himself in the presence of three haverim not to worship idols. Such is the statement of R. Meir;

But the Sages declare: Any [Gentile] who takes upon himself the seven precepts which the sons of Noah undertook;

Others maintain: These do not come within the category of a ger toshab; but who is a ger toshav? A proselyte who eats of animals not ritually slaughtered, i.e., he took upon himself to observe all the precepts mentioned in the Torah apart from the prohibition of [eating the flesh of] animals not ritually slaughtered

For the Sages, after our identity was no longer national but had become based on a shared religion, the ger who was proximate to us was defined as someone who was in some ways close to our religion.  This could be either because he rejected idolatry, or – going one step further – had accepted the Noahide laws and thus subscribes to our religious system, living the life that the Torah mandats for Gentiles.  According to one opinion it was even more extreme – it was someone who was 99% Jewish, and only chose to not keep one law, presumably in order to maintain his distinct identity.

The upshot of this is that once our identity became religion-based, our circles of responsibility became similarly based on religious proximity.  Our prime responsibility was to those of our own religion, in the next circle came those who were proximate to our religion, and in the final circle came those who had no connection to our religion.

This is what some people will find difficult today.  For those whose primary identity is their religious one, it will make sense to prioritize those of one’s religion over those of a different faith, just as it makes sense to prioritize our responsibility to our fellow Americans over our responsinility to the people of France.  But for those for whom their religion is only one of multiple, and at times competing, identities, the prioritizing of one’s co-religionist over all others will not sit so well.

While I acknowledge that this is challenging for many, I believe that everyone can appreciate the system of priorities in the Torah.  We cannot be universalists; we cannot solve all the world’s problems at once.  For moral or pragmatic reasons we have to prioritize those closest to us.  The only question is how is proximity to be defined?


We end this lecture by looking briefly at two remaining concerns – whether prioritizing means excluding those in the outer circle completely, and whether those in greater need take precedence over those who have greater proximity.


Prioritizing or Excluding?

While it makes complete sense to prioritize those to whom one is closest – “think globabally, act locally” – there is a problem when we stop “thinking globally,” when we think we have no obligation towards, or even any care about, the larger world.  I can’t tell people how much money they should give to universalist causes as opposed to Jewish ones; but I tell them that it shouldn’t be zero.  Even giving $1 to a universalist cause sends a message to oneself that one is also responsible for the world at large and the well-being of its inhabitants.  Whatever the exact nature of this obligation, it is important that we do not see the entirety of our responsibility to be only towards our fellow Jews.

What might be the nature of our responisibility to those in the outermost circle?  It should first be noted that the Gemara which gave the ranking of priorities just said that “my nation takes precendence” {source ‎4}.  A simple reading ofthat Gemara might conclude that there is a responsibility to those who are not-Jewish, but that it is further down on the list than the responsibility to one’s fellow Jews.  This is the approach that Meiri takes {source ‎9}.  For Meiri, is this obligation is a Biblical/legal one or a moral one?  Based on what he writes, how would the different levels of obligation express themselves practically?

9. Meiri, Baba Metzia, 71a   |   מאירי, בבא מציעא עא/א

ישראל וגוי שבאו ללות מישראל ואי אפשר לו לקיים את שתיהן מצוה להקדים לישראל בחנם ולא לגוי בשכר ומ”מ אף לגוי בשכר יש בו צד מצוה ומוסר הואיל ובא לפניך אל תשיבהו ריקם אלא שמ”מ לא נצטוית בו להלות בחנם

ויש מפרשים שזו כונו חכמים באמרם לנכרי תשיך זו מצות עשה… נכלל צד מצוה בהלואתו מיהא בשכר ולא לנטשו מכל וכל והוא שאמרו אם כסף תלוה את עמי עמי וגוי עמי קודם … הא למדת שאף הגוי נרמז במקרא אלא שישראל בתנם קודם לו אף בשכר ולא נאמר עליו לשון קדימה אלא שאף הוא בכלל צד מצוה ומוסר:

A Jew and a non-Jew who come to borrow money from a Jew, and it is impossible to lend to both of them, it is a mitzvah to lend first to the Jew, without charging interest, and not to the non-Jew, although one could charge him interest. Nevertheless, there is a mitzvah- and ethical-quality to lend to the non-Jew, albeit with interest – since he came before you to borrow, you should not turn him away empty-handed.  However, you are not obligated to lend him without interest.

There are those who explain that this is what our rabbis intended when they said: “’To the non-Jew though may lend with interest’ – this is a positive mitzvah”… that there is a mitzvah element in lending to a non-Jew, albeit that one is entitled to do so with charging intrest, and that we should not abandon him completely.  This is also intended in their statement: “‘If you lend money to My people’ – My people and a non-Jew, My people take precedence”… from this we see that even a non-Jew is included [in the mitzvah] of the verse, but that to lend to the Jew without interest takes precedence over lending to him even with interest, and that the non-Jew is not entitle to take precedence.  Nevertheless, even he is included in the mitzvah and ethical obligation.

Another basis for our obligation to Gentiles is darkhei Shalom, ways of peace.  This can be understood as motivated by self-interest – we are nice to them so that they will be nice to us.  But look at the Tosefta {source 10}.  In what ways do the acts mentioned in the Tosefta indicate that more than just self-interest is at play.  What is the society/community seems to be envisioned by the Tosefta?

Another source that reframes darkhei shalom is Rambam {source 11}.  How do the verses that Rambam quotes indicate an understanding of darkhei shalom that is not based on self-interest?  Whose ways are ways of peace according to Rambam?  What for Rambam becomes the mandate of darkhei shalom – is it moral, religious, or legal?

For a greater exploration of the principle of darkhei shalom, see my lecture here.

10. Tosefta, Gittin, 3:13-14   |   תוספתא גיטין (ליברמן) פרק ג

[יג] עיר שיש בה ישראל וגוים הפרנסין גובין מישראל ומגוים מפני דרכי שלום מפרנסין עניי גוים עם עניי ישראל מפני דרכי שלום

[יד] מספידין וקוברין מיתי גוים מפני דרכי שלום מנחמין אבילי גוים מפני דרכי שלום

[13] A city that has in it Jews and non-Jews, the charity-collectors collect from Jews and non-Jews [alike], for the sake of ways-of-peace.  They provide food to the poor of the non-Jews with the poor of the Jews for the sake of ways-of-peace.

[14] They [i.e., Jews] eulogize and bury the dead of non-Jews because of ways-of-peace, and they console the mourners of non-Jews because of ways-of-peace.

11.  Rambam, Laws of Kings, 10:12   |   רמב”ם הלכות מלכים פרק י:י”ב

אפילו הגויים צוו חכמים לבקר חוליהם, ולקבור מתיהם עם מתי ישראל, ולפרנס ענייהם בכלל עניי ישראל, מפני דרכי שלום, הרי נאמר טוב ה’ לכל ורחמיו על כל מעשיו, ונאמר דרכיה דרכי נועם וכל נתיבותיה שלום. Even regarding the non-Jew, our Sages have commanded us to visit their sick and to bury their dead alongside the Jewish dead, and to feed their poor amongst the Jewish poor, because of ways-of-peace.  Behold the verse says, “God is good to all and His compassion is on all of his creatures.” And it says, “Her [the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace.”



Need versus Proximity

The Gemara in Baba Metzia {source 4} gave two criteria for prioritizing aid to the other – proximity and degree of need.  It was not clear from the Gemara which of these takes precedence.  The Tosefta Baba Metzia {source 12} records a debate in this regard between the Sages (the anonymous voice) and R. Yossi.  R. Yossi’s position seems quite extreme – do you think he means it literally?  What about the Sages – do you think they would say that the first city’s laundry comes before the other city’s animals?

12. Tosefta Baba Metzia, chapter 11   |   תוספתא בבא מציעא פרק יא

[לג] מעין של בני העיר הן ואחרים [הן] קודמין לאחרים אחרים ובהמתן חיי אחרים הן קודמין לבהמתן ר’ יוסי או’ בהמתן קודמת לחיי אחרים

[לד] בהמתן ובהמת אחרים בהמתן קודמת לבהמת אחרים   

[לה] אחרים וכבוסתן חיי אחרים הן קודמין לכבוסתן ור’ יוסי או’ כבוסתן קודמת לחיי אחרים

[33] A well-spring that belongs to one city – if they must choose between themselves and others, they come before others.  If the choice is between others and their own cattle, the lives of others take precedence over their own cattle.  Rabbi Yossi says: ‘Their cattle take precedence over the lives of others.’

[34] If the choice is between their cattle and the cattle of others, their cattle take precendence over the cattle of others.

[35] If the choice is between others and their own laundry, the lives of others take precedence over their laundry.  Rabbi Yossi says, ‘Their laundry takes precedence over the lives of others.’

This issue is debated in poskim as well.  Hatam Sofer {source 13} deals with a passage from the Talmud which gives priority to the poor living in Jerusalem.  Hatam Sofer asks whether those poor who are in more dire straits would trump the poor who are in Jerusalem.  What answer does he give to this question? Do you think his answer would be the same if the question were deciding between one’s city’s poor (or a poor relative) and the more needy poor from a distant land? Why or why not?

Arukh HaShulkhan addresses the question of degree of responsibility to those in the more outer circles {source 14}.  He is responding to the ruling in Shulkhan Arukh that one must prioritize one’s relatives.  What, asks Arukh HaShulkhan are our responsibilities to those who are not the closest to us?  Does he give clear guidelines to determine how to best apportion our money between these different groups?  Do you think the rules should be more explicit?  What is the benefit of leaving room for judgment and discretion?  How do you think Arukh HaShulkhan would rule when those who are more distant are in greater need?

13. Responsa Hatam Sofer, YD, 234  |   שו”ת חתם סופר יו”ד ח”ב, סי’ רלד

… דכל הקדימות אינם אלא להקדים ולא לדחות נפשות ח”ו וע”כ אם שניהם שוים שצריכים להחיות נפשם בלחם צר ומים לחץ נאמר זה קודם אבל כשיש לאנשי ירושלים אפי’ רק לחם צר שוב אין להם שום תביעה עד שיגיע לכל א’ מעיירו’ האחרות ג”כ כשיעור הזה ושוב מהנותר שיצטרכו למותרות וכסות וכדומה יש הקדמה למוקדם עד שיהיה שוה בשוה בזה ג”כ וכן בכל מילי לא אמרו לדחות אלא להקדים… Becase all the prioritizing [in the list of who receives tzedakah, such as one’s own poor over the poor of another city] only refer to who comes first, not to endanger lives, God forbid!  Thus, if two people have equal needs, that they both need to sustain their lives with meager bread and measured water, in such a case we will say that this one comes before that one.  But if the people of Jerusalem have their bare sustenance, they have no claim [to our tzedakah funds] until every single other city[‘s poor] has received equal support.  Then, from whatever funds remain, we will attend to the poor’s need for clothing and similar matter, and in this area we will apply our list of who comes before whom, until they are all equally provided for in this area as well.   And similarly in all matters, they never said to disregard a need (of one group), only to give priority [to one group over another within a specific area of needs].

14. Arukh HaShulkhan, Yoreh Deah, 251:4   |   ערוך השולחן, יורה דעה, רנ”א:ד

… האמנם בעיקרי הדברים ק”ל טובא דאם נאמר דברים כפשוטן דאלו קודמין לאלו ואלו לאלו דהכוונה שא”צ ליתן כלל למדרגה שאחר זה ולפ”ז הא הדבר ידוע שלכל עשיר יש הרבה קרובים עניים וכ”ש לבעה”ב שהצדקה שלו מועטת וא”כ לפ”ז אותם העניים שאין להם קרובים עשירים ימותו ברעב ואיך אפשר לומר כן. ולכן נלע”ד דבירור הדברים כך הם דבוודאי כל בע”ב או עשיר הנותן צדקה מחוייב ליתן חלק לעניים הרחוקים אלא דלקרוביו יתן יותר מלשאינו קרוביו וכן כולם כמדרגה זו…… However, regarding the principle [of prioritizing one’s relatives], I find this matter very difficult.  For if we take this principle literally,  that the top categories take precedence over the bottom ones, to the extent that one does not have to give at all to the lower categories, if so, consider the following.  It is well known that every rich person has a lot of poor relatives [and will give all his tzedakah only to them].  How much more so will this be the case for a normal homeowner who has limited tzedakah funds.  If we were to follow the above principle, then those poor people who have no rich relatives will die from starvation!  How can we say such a thing?  Therefore, it is clear to me that the actual ruling is that every homeowner or rich person who gives tzedakah is obligated to give a portion to the poor who are not his relatives.  However, he should give more to his relatives than to those who are not his relatives.  And similarly regarding this entire hierarchy.



We have seen that the Torah focuses our obligations on those of our own nation.  We saw that this translated more broadly into a concept of circles of responsibility, setting a hierarchy of obligations where our greatest responsibilities are towards those who are closest to us.  We explored what this proximity would mean, how it was a function of one’s identity.  By looking at the case of the ger in the Torah, we saw how our identity has a people has shifted from one based on nation to one based on religion, and we noted the way in which today many competing identities are often at play.  Finally, we looked briefly at the question of what responsibility exists, if at all, to those most distant from us, and whether degree of need or degree of affinity and proximity should be the more determining factor.  In all, the Torah is balancing competing demands on our limited time, money and resources, to help us make decisions about complex real-world cases that have no simple black-and-white answer.