Society’s Attitude to Financial Downfall

Society’s Attitude to Financial Downfall

By Elishai Ben-Yitzhak*

A fundamental concept is that a person’s possessions comprise part of his personality and are even likely to give meaning to his life.[1]  Feeling stability in one’s possessions, insofar as they are part of one’s personality, is essential to the course of normal life and to a sense of security[2] and freedom.[3]

The problem is that the vicissitudes of life can deal a blow to a person’s economic well-being.  Financial downfall can begin due to the failure of an economic venture,[4] or due to losing one’s job—things that can make someone no longer able to meet all his financial obligations.  From there, it is but a short road to falling into debt.  In such a case, the ruined life of the individual calls for rehabilitation; but it is doubtful that rehabilitation is even possible, since a person’s property is part of his personality, and the right to property is a fundamental human right.[5]  This raises the question as to the proper way of treating a person who has lost his property and become poor.[6]  Should such a person be left to cope on his own, or should he be helped?  And if helped, to what extent should assistance be proffered?  According to what criteria?

These questions, often of concern to Israeli society, are discussed in the weekly reading.  Parashat Be-Har deals essentially with basic social issues and seeks a remedy for ills and economic misfortunes.  According to the plain sense of the text,[7] this week’s reading describes the slippery slope of economic downfall[8] in four stages:  the first stage is when a person sells his source of livelihood—his field—because his business is no longer bringing in a profit and perhaps is even causing losses; the second stage is when the person sells his house because the revenue from selling his business does not suffice to cover all his debts; in the third stage, the person sells himself into bondage to a Jewish master; and in the last stage, he sells himself as a slave to a gentile master, on the assumption that he will be paid more for his work there, or because his creditors are pressing him to pay up and he cannot wait for a Hebrew master to purchase him as his servant.

In the midst of the description of these stages we come across an injunction which seems not related and is addressed to a third party, to the surrounding society that witnesses the process of financial decline:

If your kinsman, coming into straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side:  do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your G-d.  Let him live by your side as your kinsman. (Lev. 25:35-36)

This directive, addressed to those who witness the economic decline of such a person, is intended to teach us at what point in time we must become involved and how, as a society, we are to stop the downhill slide at an early stage, before the poor person sells himself into slavery.  To this end the Torah forbids taking advantage of the hardship of the person who has collapsed financially, and therefore lending money for interest is forbidden.  Moreover, we are obliged to give such a person support, but to what extent?  Until the point at which we relate to him as if he were our own flesh and blood; as if not the other had suffered a downfall, but we ourselves had collapsed financially:  “If your kinsman, coming into straits…let him live by your side”—we must view the other as if he were our kinsman, our own flesh and blood.

Scripture mentions our mutual responsibility in other places, too.  For example, in the following demand:

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 G‑d is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.  Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.  (Deut. 15:7-8)

In this connection, Rashi has a fascinating explanation of the expression “your needy kinsman.”  He says, “If you do not give to him, ultimately you will be brother to the needy.”  In other words, closing one’s eyes, being indifferent and ignoring one’s fellow in time of economic crisis can lead to the one who observes from the side ultimately becoming poor himself.  In this spirit the Torah commands us to practice remission of debts and loans that have not been paid up by the end of the sabbatical year (Deut. 15:1-2).

The question, as we said, is to what extent we must help out the person who has collapsed financially.  This is answered in the Talmud (Ketubbot 67b), in the story of one Mar `Ukba, who had a poor man in his neighborhood to whom he regularly sent four hundred zuz on the eve of every Day of Atonement.  Once he sent his son to deliver the money to the poor man, and a while later the son returned with the money in his hand, claiming that the poor man did not need the money since he had seen old wine being sprayed before the man in order to give his house fragrance.  This was a luxury, Mar `Ukba’s son thought, and rightly so, for if a person can waste old wine using it for fragrance, apparently he does not lack and has no need of charity.  However the father, in contrast to his son, thought that if such were the poor man’s needs, then the amount of charity given him should actually be increased to be sure to supply “his needs.”

Accordingly, he sent his son to deliver twice the sum.  A similar story is told of Hillel, who bought a poor member of an aristocratic family a horse to ride and a slave to run before him (Ketubbot 67b).  These instances provide the basis for the halakhah that support is given not only to satisfy the most basic needs, but should be given in line with the life-style to which the poor person had been accustomed before he became impoverished:  “to cover whatever needs he feels lacking.”[9]

This should be a guiding light for us in our day, as well.  A distinction should be made between charity given by a private person and charity given from public funds.[10]  For the most part, public funds do not suffice to provide a person everything that he lacks in comparison to how he lived before his economic downfall.  This is where social responsibility[11] is placed on the circle of people surrounding him to try and assist him in getting through his difficult times.  In this instance, the responsibility should fall on people close to him and associates; all those who prior to his economic collapse benefited from his prosperity and themselves derived a livelihood from his wealth.  The responsibility rests on them to support the impoverished man in his misfortune, until he can once more stand on his feet.[12]

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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* Adv. Ben Yitzhak is an MA in Law from Hebrew University, the owner of a law firm, and an outside lecturer for Shaarei Mishpat College. Let our words here be in the memory of the girl Tehilla Hayah Bat Michal who was taken in the beginning of her life. May her memory be for a blessing. Originally published in Hebrew in 2016. This translation has not been reviewed by the author.

[1]            A clear expression of the connection between property and a person’s life is found in the words of the Sages:  “Four kinds of persons are accounted as dead:  the poor,…” (Nedarim 64b).

[2] For example, “Three things increase a man’s self-esteem:  a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife, and beautiful clothes” (Berakhao 57b).

[3] See the ruling by Judge Edmond Levy, Supreme Court 05/1661, Hof Gaza Regional Council and Others v. Israeli Knesset and Others, Nevo website, par. 30.

[4] For a discussion of whether or not a person is entitled to take economic risks cf. Resp. Nod`a bi-Yehudah, Tanina edition, Yore De`ah, par. 10; Resp. Iggerot Moshe, Hoshen Misphat, par. 144;  Resp. Tzitz Eliezer 9.17.

[5] Rav Kook writes:  “The very presence of wealth gives self-esteem and tranquility, which enables a person to deal with ideas, the Torah, wisdom, and all good things” (Ein Ayah, Shabbat, ch. 2, par. 70).

[6] For a discussion of how the Halakhah defines a poor person, see Aviad ha-Cohen, “Kav ha-`Oni ve-Zekhut ha-Kiyyum be-Khavod,” Parashat ha-Shavua, Ministry of Justice, 159 (Tetzaveh, 2004); Avraham Tenenbaum, “Le-Hagdarat ha-`Oni,” Parashat ha-Shavua, Ministry of Justice, 295 (Re’eh 2007); Ido Rekhnitz, “Medidat `Oni be-Hashra’ah Yehudit,” Tehumin 27 (2007), pp. 371-378.

[7] Or ha-Hayyim interprets this passage figuratively.  He holds that the text here deals not with a private individual, but with the entire community of Israel, as a parable showing the stages of decline that ensued with the loss of spiritual public property (destruction of the Temple) and loss of physical belongings (exile).  Afterwards, according to him, the text details the road to correction and redemption, which will occur by virtue of the righteous of the times who, in their death, atone for the people.  There are two possibilities for redemption:  the one, will occur “in due time”—as reflected in the text, “what he sold shall remain until the jubilee”; the other, “[the Lord] will speed it”—since, “if he prospers,” a person may buy the land that he was forced to sell before the jubilee.

[8] The Mishnah, Tractate Avot (6.8), says that “Wealth is becoming to the righteous and becoming to the world.”  Two main approaches can be identified regarding whether it is permissible to be wealthy and accrue possessions:  according to Maimonides, a person should follow the middle road in life, “he should not labor in his business except to gain what he needs for immediate use” (Hilkhot De`ot 1.4).  Maggid Mishneh, a commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, explains:  “Every intelligent person ought to make do with what is essential and not seek luxuries, and his soul should be more important to him than his possessions” (Hilkhot Zekhiyah u-Matanah 12.17).  On the other side is the Vilna Gaon, who writes in his commentary on Proverbs 2:16:  “Being desirous of a good living and wealth is in no way forbidden”; and Rav Kook tells us:  “Every person may engage in wheeling and dealing, and purchase property and possessions even beyond that which is essential for his needs, and he does not thereby neglect the Torah” (Ein Ayah, Berakhot, ch. 1, par. 30).

[9] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De`ah, Hilkhot Tzedakah 250.1.

[10] For an extensive discussion, see Ido Rekhnitz, “Mahashavot be-`Inyan Hashkafatah ha-Kalkalit-Hevratit shel ha-Yahadut,” Zohar 21 (2005), pp. 143-152; Michael Wygoda, “Bein Zekhuyot Hevratiyot le-Hovot Hevratiyot ba-Mishpat ha-Ivri,” in Zekhuyot Kalkaliyot, Hevratiyo ve-Tarbutiyot be-Yisrael (ed. Y. Rabin and Y. Shani), Tel Aviv 2005, pp. 233-296; Naphtali Bar-Ilan, “Zaka’uto shel he-`Ani le-Tzedakah,” Tehumin 2 (1981), pp. 459-465.

[11] For a discussion of questions of social responsibility, see Yonatan Zacks, Le-Rappe Olam Shavur—Ha-Hayyim ke-Kri’ah le-Aharayut, Jerusalem 2010, pp. 3-19, 39-54.

[12] Maimonides lists eight levels of charity.  The most elevated mode of charity is to give the poor person the opportunity to begin a new page and rehabilitate himself by giving him a loan or the tools to earn a living and succeed in his undertakings (see Hilkhot Matanot Aniyyim, 10.7-14).

Last modified: 15/05/2017