How Poor Is Poor Enough?

Who, according to halacha, is eligible for charity? The question is practical, since halacha seems to present a clear threshold and only individuals living beneath the threshold may receive charity.

What, exactly, is that threshold? Here’s what the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 253:1) rules:

מי שיש לו מזון שתי סעודות, לא יטול מהתמחוי. מזון י”ד סעודות, לא יטול מהקופה. ואם יש לו ר’ זוז ואינו נושא ונותן בהם, או שיש לו חמשים זוז והוא נושא ונותן בהם, לא יטול צדקה

Someone with enough food for two meals may not take from the ‘tamchui,’ food for 14 meals may not take from the ‘kupa.’ If he has 200 zuz that he’s using for his business, or 50 zuz that is not being used for business, he may not take charity.”

I suspect that, these days, 200 zuz would be worth a few thousand dollars. So it would seem that anyone with more than a thousand dollars or so in liquid cash – or a few thousand in, say, retirement savings – should not be taking charity.

That, of course, leaves many other questions unanswered. Has the precise definition of charity changed? Where do social welfare programs and other government entitlements fit in? Are tuition scholarships considered charity?

But the very next section in Shulchan Aruch (253:2) turns everything upside down:

יש אומרים שלא נאמרו השיעורים הללו אלא בימיהם, אבל בזמן הזה יכול ליטול עד שיהיה לו קרן כדי שיתפרנס הוא ובני ביתו מהריוח. ודברים של טעם הם

“Some say that those thresholds applied only in those times, but these days, one may receive charity unless he has sufficient capital to provide his family’s needs from the profits alone. And these are reasonable words.”

Assuming mortgage/rent and private school tuition payments count as “family needs,” which of us can live off profits without dipping into core revenues and savings? Are we all עניים in the eyes of the Shulchan Aruch?

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Property Values

I’m 57 years old and I still have no clue what עידית זיבורית ובינונית are all about (see Bava Kama 6b and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 102). How embarrassing is that? 

Here’s the problem: How can two properties that have the exact same market value (equal to each of the multiple חובות the individual faces) have different objective worths? In other words, a 50×100 lot in a safe and pleasant residential community might be worth $2,000,000 while a property that’ll sell for that same $2,000,000 in northern Ontario would probably have to be around twenty acres.

But in which way is the residential property “better” (עידית) or “worse” (זיבורית) than the distant, regional property? It all depends on what you plan to do with it. A mining company might be more interested in northern Ontario while a young, growing family would be more interested in a house. It’s really subjective.

So wouldn’t it have made more sense, rather than creating עידית זיבורית ובינונית categories, to simply say something like:

יד ניזק על העליונה

Meaning that the creditor with the strongest claim gets to choose whichever of the properties (of equal value) that he wants.

Update: I asked around and heard a couple of useful insights:

Efraim Stulberg, my (former) talmid (who is in the corporate asset evaluation business), suggested that markets do sometimes separate sale price from value. His example was in how liquidity can be a significant differentiator even when two businesses are selling for the same price.

And Menachem Rosenzweig, my (permanent) son-in-law, (who is in the commercial mortgage brokerage business) noted how higher cash flows can similarly impact the salability of commercial properties without impacting the price. 

Having said all that, Efraim pointed out that, in halachic terms, the Rambam follows the sugya in Bava Kama 6b, where מיטב שדהו refers exclusively to מטלטלין and not קרקע, since מטלטלין are easy to resell at high prices (i.e., they’re liquid).


Another Site Update

I’ve added a nice long chapter to my Finding Tradition project: How We Choose What We Observe. It’s about some gaps between halachic ideals and our real-world halachic performance.

All Torah communities work hard addressing challenges, but none of us is perfect. Halacha is a complex system, the Jews are a complex people and we live in a madly complex world. If we value truth and aspire to improve, it’s important to recognize and understand those gaps.

Take a look for yourself and share your thoughts.