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You Shall Not Steal: Not As Easy As It Looks

Liberal Jews, myself included, love to quote biblical verses about the care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the strangers. We feel good knowing that our tradition demands ethical behavior, and point to these verses as evidence that ritual practice is not the end all and be all of Jewish life.

But how many of us actually take these verses seriously?

This week’s parashah lays out some of the basic principles for agricultural tzedakah:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10)

These laws, known as pe’ah (the corners of the field), leket (fallen produce), along with shikh’cha (forgotten produce) serve as precedent for later laws of tzedakah. While the Torah does not specify the minimum amount that an individual must give to tzedakah, the rabbis mandate giving at least ten percent of one’s income.

Immediately after presenting these laws of tzedakah, the Torah continues, “You shall not steal.” (19:11). At least one classical commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, understands this juxtaposition to mean that failure to give tzedakah constitutes stealing.

Jewish law prohibits “gozel ‘aniyyim”—stealing from the poor. Ordinarily, this prohibition refers to cases in which a person who is ineligible for tzedakah takes from communal tzedakah funds, thereby leaving insufficient money for those who are actually in need.

In one teshuvah (legal opinion), the contemporary scholar, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg (aka the “Tzitz Eliezer”, 1915-2006) uses the category of gozel ‘aniyyim also to forbid spending money set aside for tzedakah to fulfill another mitzvah, such as writing a Torah scroll.

Earlier this week, I wrote about Peter Singer’s controversial suggestion that only money donated to anti-poverty programs should be eligible for tax deductions. I suggested that, while the IRS cannot reasonably get involved in determining what counts as poverty relief, that individual Jews should dedicate our tzedakah money—meaning ten percent or more of our income—to ending poverty. We can argue endlessly about how best to eradicate poverty, but should at least be able to justify to ourselves that ten percent or more of our income is contributing to the creation of a more equitable world.

In today’s economic climate, we are asked constantly to contribute money to one mitzvah or another. On top of all of these solicitations, we try to save enough money to survive a job loss or salary reduction, and to prepare for our families’ future. But the obligation to give tzedakah is not a luxury reserved for good times. Nor can we count every donation, regardless how worthy, as tzedakah. Taking the prohibition against gozel ‘aniyyim seriously means setting aside ten percent no matter what for bringing about the end of poverty.

It’s easy to feel good about quoting verses mandating care of the poor. Will we also commit ourselves to not stealing?

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