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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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