Talmud - Justice and Ethics
Lesson 2 Study Guide

Discussion of Charity (Tzedakah) - Bava Basra


I.        Last paragraph, mishnah, 7b2, how long in city to bear a citizen’s full responsibilities - 12 months, or buying a house. This comes after responsibilities in a joint courtyard and responsibilities for all in a city to pay at least something toward its security.

II. Some requirements to offer charity start earlier - 8a4. 

III. redeeming captives - great mitzvah - 8a5, 8b1. 

IV. Discussion of rules in the administration of charity - 8b1, 8b2, 10b1. 

V. Virtue of charity collector  and support and protection- 8b3, 8b4, 9a1. 

VI. Eligibility for assistance - 9a2, 9a3. 

VII. How much to give -9a3, 9a4, 9b1. 

VIII. Merits of, and need for, giving charity - 9b3, 9b4, 10a1, 10a2, 10a3, 10a4, 10b1, 10b2, 11a1, 11a2. 

IX. Value to the whole community in charity given well - 10b1, 10b2, 10b3. 

X. Return to law on being in city to bear burdens - a debate on owning a house!  

I.        Introduction - today we’re going to go very deeply into an extended treatment in the tractate, Bava Basra, within the order of Nezikin, of charity. In Hebrew, it is tzedakah. It’s very interesting how the later sages find their way from a fairly dry legal ruling in the Mishnah to this gorgeous, profound discussion.  But we have it, and it’s a rare, ancient piece of wisdom on virtues that were crucially important to them and are to us as well 

If I were to characterize our lesson today it would be principally an exercise in ethics, albeit it one that obviously wears the clothes of religion. Get ready! This is going to be quite a journey.

One point I want to stress at the outset is that the word, charity, though used in most translations, does not capture well the concept that’s being discussed. In Hebrew, again, the word is tzedakah, which more accurately means acts of righteousness. So, when one gives tzedakah, for example, to the poor, it’s done more out of a sense of duty or rightness, yes, with mercy, too, but not merely “charitably.” I may use the word, tzedakah, on occasion just to keep your mind from going in the wrong direction.

II. Mishnah - let’s look at the three components:

A.      Responsibilities of owners of homes to caring for an adjoining courtyard.

B. Responsibilities of residents of a city to supporting its security.

C. Qualifications of citizenship in a city that obligates a resident as citizen  to help bear municipal expenses: general rule - if one resides there for 12 months, or if buys a house there, one is such a citizen. This can be rebutted in favor of citizenship if one makes clear explicitly earlier that one intends to be a citizen, or against citizenship if one has a house in the city that one intends to use only on a temporary basis. 

We’re going to look at the Gemara as it extends from this third matter, the qualifications of citizenship.  Let’s see how the later sages move from this topic to the place they want to go, that is, to duties with respect to charity. I’ll ask about the “why” of the transition in a moment.

II. Read portion 1. 

A. What do these later sages want to accomplish at the outset in the Gemara, and why? 

(It suggests the 12 month rule from the Mishnah more narrowly applies to the provision of security. The later sages obviously want to find a duty to offer charity earlier in one’s residence in a city, as if to say one should begin to help one’s neighbors earlier, really much earlier. These appear to be aspects of citizenship that are, and should be, triggered fairly immediately.) 

B. Any rhyme or reason to the order in which the duties are assumed? 

(Helping with food would come quickest. General support of poor, next. Clothes. These seem to fit the order of the relative urgency of the felt needs, as well as the appropriateness of the timing of the donor’s involvement in offering help. Burial expenses are greater and involve perhaps a longer term position in the place for the donor. 

C. Read portion 2. Why is helping redeem captives considered to be the great mitzvah, the great act of charity? 

(The captive is likely both hungry and poorly clothed, as are many in need, but also is extraordinarily lonely, frightened, and in a strange land, subject to the whim of one who deals in terror, and in great, if not mortal, danger.)

D. Read portion 3. Why the concern about having this organization and numerous people involved in collecting and administering charity?

(Clearly, this is due largely to assure that funds are safe and secure from being misused or stolen. Further, there’s a sense of a community’s role through these people and processes in the administration of a very valued function. Finally, there’s judgment that’s involved. One wants to be sure decisions are good and sound and honest, and having more than one person involved provides greater diversity in decision-making, perhaps with less chance of error or arbitrariness. See 10b1.)

E. There are provisions as to the timing of providing charity, the manner of maintaining funds, authorized diversions of funds, and procedures for the operation of collectors. We won’t look at these in detail. But I want to ask: why all this detail?

(We pay attention to detail when we are involved in things that matter most and when we care most. We want to protect important assets, make the best decisions, assure maximum impact of these funds, and treat donors and donees with respect and honor.) 

F. Read portion 4. This has a reference to Daniel 12:3. In what ways is this a tribute both to charity collectors as well as teachers? 

(The collectors help make givers righteous and shine like stars, discern needs wisely and give to help recipients shine. Teachers make their students shine like stars forever; their effort (and impact) is ongoing, even when not visible. The stars exert their influence both at day and night, though illumined only at night, just as collectors are always at work but give discreetly (as if at night) so as not to embarrass the recipient.) 

G. Let’s look at portion 5. This is fascinating. Do we investigate applicants before we provide assistance, and, if so, on what basis do we decide/prioritize? Do you? What do we find here? 

(Here one sage says we question one who asks for food but give immediately to one who asks for help to be clothed. His logic is a person wouldn’t appear naked or barely clothed unless truly in need and the other who claims hunger might be or might not. The other sage says hunger must be responded to immediately while clothing could be inquired about later. They look at the same verse and read it differently: “Will you not break your bread for the hungry? When you see the naked, you shall cover him.” The Gemara seems to side with the sage who responds without question to a person who claims hunger.

But, given the priority here on helping those in need with charity, how do we leave this discussion, with its differences? 

We may leave with the idea that we should differentiate between those who make a plea, inquiring to learn when the need is real and when it is not. But we also may, as some say is right, err in favor of giving, rather than leaving a person truly in need without help.) 

H. We’re far enough in the Gemara to have a flavor of the priority given charity in this discussion, as well as the beginning words in the Mishnah, from which it emerged. Do you remember the talk there - about the time or stake it takes to be a citizen in a city, with full duties? How did we get here? Why do these later sages go in this direction, and how did they do it? 

(Charity is a cherished and valued element/requirement of being a citizen. It is both a duty and a distinguishing feature. It also largely defines the essence of the city, and characterizes it in the most fundamental sort of way. Finally, this discussion gets to what we can do and how we can act relative to these duties to make the city be its best.) 

I.        Read portion 6. Let’s look at these two statements. One, act of giving charity is equal to all of the other God-expected acts. The other, the one who causes charitable deeds to happen is greater than the one who performs the deed. Explain each in order. 

(Love and service of the neighbor, particularly the weak, is the principal intention of the commandments, so actually doing it directly is equal to them all, no?

Without the causing, presumably the doing wouldn’t happen. Plus, anything that multiplies the doing is especially valued. The sages cite Isaiah: tzedakah leads to peace, and its work, to everlasting tranquility and security. Another: if one can revive a person in need, the reviver has a stake or share in all the good deeds the revived person will do in his/her life.)

J. Read portion 7, continued on 10b1. Why is a gift given in secret, perhaps given through a communal charity purse, considered great? 

(The donee is not embarrassed, feels no debt to the donor, and the giver gets no credit or relief from anyone for it. In religious terms, it’s for the sake of heaven.) 

K. Read portion 8. Why does the giver of words get more blessings than a giver of money?

(This involves more of himself/herself, and what it gives goes to help at the core of the hurting one. This helps the afflicted spirit by drawing out and giving from the donor’s spirit. The donor’s light shines through the darkness. Healing can come forth speedily. The sages see this in Isaiah, and God’s glory is the reward. God responds to the call. God continues to guide and satisfy the donor in the future, even in his/her moments of drought.

These blessings also include the re-building of ancient ruins and raising up foundations for many generations. These words ring of other elements of sacred text, but, even more, fit with building and strengthening the city in which citizens are the key players - the focus we began with in the Mishnah.

Other blessings here: the donor will be like a watered garden, a spring whose waters never fail, of strong bones, a repairer of the breach, a restorer of paths to dwell in. R’ Yitzchak says the giver of kindness and charity finds life, charity, and honor from God.

In 10b2, we see mention of dwelling on high, having a fortress of rock as one’s stronghold, where bread is given, and waters are sure. This, it is said, accompanies the donor’s giving bread and water to the poor.

When you offer up words of comfort to one in need, do you, perhaps metaphorically or in some other way, have the feeling of such blessings? In what ways, reflective of these blessings, does the donor himself/herself actually benefit from giving? Be as specific as possible in your answer. 

L. Now we encounter a literary device frequently employed in the Talmud. There is a conversation between a famous Jewish sage and a powerful Roman or Greek general or king. Here it is Rabbi Akiba and a Roman general. It shows a contrast in values, often through the ways in which the narrative is constructed. Let’s break it down literarily and ethically.

Read portion 9. 

How does each get to a different position through a variation in the plot each weaves? What theological position and ethic is Akiba stressing

(Akiba is trying to show that in a world where God is sovereign people can end up in dire circumstances, even sometimes as a result of Divine action. But God desires our providing help and comfort to such people, as a King would to a son he’s chastised. The key thing is that we are very much expected to help people who in a world in which God does reign are in trouble. We are children of God first and foremost. Even when exiled when we are seen as, even treated as, “slaves,” our status is still fundamentally as God’s children, whom we hope will be saved and from whom love and duty to God are due. 

Why was this important for sages to stress? 

They knew that many would refrain from acting to help on the basis of the view that people who are in trouble in a world in which God is sovereign are meant to stay in trouble. Or, in a different way, God would help the needy when, and if, it is the Divine wish to do so. This view is utterly unacceptable to the sages and, thus, must be and is defeated here.

M. Read portion 10. Refusing to assist the poor is akin to committing idolatry. Even more, averting one’s eyes from giving charity is as if one worships idols. How could this be? Do you see the extension from refusing to give all the way to averting one’s eyes? Explain it. 

(If God expects us as a matter of the highest order to help those in need and rewards us when we do provide such help, it would be straying of the worst sort, as if to worship other gods, to refuse to do so. There’s a hedging notion here that we also see in the New Testament: don’t even avert your eyes as you approach the decision. Have you ever averted your eyes when you’ve had a decision to make to a request for help? Of course, you have! We all have. The wisdom here is as soon as you avert your eyes you’re gone; you won’t come back and give. On the other hand, once you see and look, perhaps in the eyes of the other, you most often will help. That’s the reason for the extension.

N. Look at portion 11. This is powerful religious writing with which you’re likely familiar. A litany of strong things that can be softened by something else. Then we see that the strongest thing we know and fear, death, is softened by…charity. This obviously speaks powerfully to the religious believer. But whether one’s religious or not, what’s the meaning here? 

(This is an ultimate statement of the importance to God of our doing charity. It has the effect somehow of redeeming us even from death. Whether you believe this or not as a religious truth, it’s the manner of words for religious people of showing an ultimate importance of charity in our lives. This could simply mean that we live on, our legacy after death is defined mostly, through what and how we give to those in need during our lifetimes. 

This line of thinking continues in portion 12. Take a look. Here we see that even giving the smallest amount of charity brings about God’s nearness. Again whether you are religious or not, I invite you to think about the feeling you have when you help another. That feeling is akin, I think in religious terms, to what the sages are saying here, “through awakening I shall be sated by Your image.”) 

O. Read portion 12. This is very powerful. A giver of charity is one who has lent to God. In other words, God is beholden to the giver of charity as a borrower is to a lender. Wow. What’s the meaning there and its consequence? 

(God requires our help in making the world better and helping those in need. God needs, benefits from, and is indebted to those who help in that work. For people of faith, is there a “carrot’” more powerful than having the view that God is pleased and even indebted to us for doing something that furthers Divine purpose?)

P. There’s a long stretch of text that discusses why it is essential that the charity that exalts a nation must be that which is given without hope of reward. Though we have talked a lot about rewards bestowed upon the giver, here we encounter the idea that giving done principally for the purpose of self-glorification or reward is perhaps tantamount to sin. What does this mean?

(There is a sense in which motive matters, attitude matters, spirit in which the deed is done matters. Don’t we know that this is so when we or others give for these reasons as opposed to more pure reasons? Surely, if the donee feels the ulterior motives in the giving, the value is likely diminished. Further, if one is improperly motivated, doesn’t that increase significantly the chance the giving will be less purposeful or effective, even if there’s kindness in it?

There is a delicate balance between being rewarded and being motivated to an extent by rewards and crossing a line to where the giving is motivated principally by ulterior motives. This is not simple, and we’d probably prefer it be simple. But the balance here is perhaps the right place to be.)

Q. The discussion at this stage is conducted in the context of a nation, not merely an individual. Why does the text extend from a person to a nation (including but beyond even a city)?

(The sages are concerned a lot about the nature and behavior of the whole community. We, as individuals, have personal responsibility, yes, but we must drive these model actions around charity such that they become characteristic of the broader community as well as our individual selves. When a community is a giving one, it makes a huge difference in the application of these virtues to the greatest number of people.)

R. Read portion 13. This will wrap up our main discussion of charity. What big lessons do the sages teach here?

(Preserving souls of our fellow human beings is far richer than material gain; hoarding souls beats hoarding money, and by a lot. Righteousness  produces the fruit of life; acquiring souls (through giving and supporting others) creates the wisdom by which we prosper in the best ways.)

S. In portion 14, we see a common practice in the Talmud, in which the later sages close out their discussion in the Gemara, regardless of how far they’ve stretched, by returning to an issue in the Mishnah. Here it involves a liberalization as to one of the ways of becoming a citizen of a city. It’s not necessarily buying a house in the city, according to the text here. It could be merely buying land suitable to building a house, or, according to another opinion, simply owning just a minuscule parcel of land in the city. 

I find it entirely humorous that both of these differing opinions are said to derive from the views of the same sage. And the Talmud is satisfied to conclude by saying sages simply held different views and quoted the same source to support each of their opinions. What possible sense could this make, and why does the discussion end with this? 

(One possibility: one’s responsibilities as a citizen, especially to give charity, are seen to begin at the earliest possible time. Another: it’s fine to have variation from city to city in these rules and customs. Another: the main point of all this was the duties to charity. Others?)

Conclusion: Where are we? What has this journey meant to you? What do you take away with you as a result of our study and discussion? 

Talmud - Justice and Ethics         Lesson 2 Study Guide

                   <Home Page>    <Lessons in the Talmud