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    Poverty – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Is there a Jewish view about poverty?

    A. Isn’t it Tevye who says in “Fiddler on the Roof” that poverty is no disgrace, but it’s no great honour either? This probably sums up the Jewish view of poverty.

    On the one hand, the Bible says that the poor will not vanish from the earth (Deut. 15:11), and in passage after passage it deems it a great mitzvah to support the poor and alleviate their condition (e.g. Ex. 23:11; Lev. 23:22, 25:35). On the other hand, it regards riches as a blessing, provided they are used wisely, and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, editor of the Mishnah, is reported as showing honour to the rich (Eruvin 86a) – not necessarily because they are better human beings, but because the community needs their help.

    Jewish social legislation has focussed from Biblical times onwards on lessening poverty by providing opportunities for self-help; Maimonides in his Eight Degrees of Charity applauds those who give hand-outs to others in time of need but praises most of all those whose help is anonymous, so no-one will feel humiliated, and takes the form of opportunities to become independent (the Chinese have a similar saying that better than giving a person a fish is to give them a fishing rod).

    There is a widespread, antisemitic view that all Jews are rich, but what Jews themselves say is halevai – “Would that it were so!” There is hardly a Jewish community without a visible minority who live below the poverty line, though generally they live in dignity and do their best. Jewish welfare agencies often draw much of their support from people who have now made good but once were penniless refugees who remember how other people were there to help them.

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