The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
ACCORDING to a proverb of the fathers, benevolence is one of the pillars upon which the world rests. "The world," said they, "is sustained by virtue of three things,--the law, divine worship, and active benevolence." The Pentateuch commences and ends with an act of benevolence, as it is written, "And the Lord God made unto Adam and to his wife coats of skin, and clothed them" (Genesis 3: 20); and also, "And He (God) buried him" (Deut. 34: 6). To do a person a favour, is to act beneficently towards him without any hope or desire of return, and may be practised in two cases,--to oblige a person to whom we are not under obligation, and to accommodate or oblige a person, with more trouble to ourselves and more gain to him than he deserves. The mercy which is mentioned in the Bible is that which is given freely and without desert upon the part of one to whom it is granted; for instance, the benevolence of God is called mercy, because we are in debt to God, and He owes us nothing. Charity is also a species of benevolence, but it can only be applied to the poor and needy; while benevolence itself is both for poor and rich, high and lowly. We may even act benevolently towards the dead, attending to the last rites; this is called mercy and truth. If we oblige a fellow-man, it is possible that he may, in the course of time, repay the same; but benevolence to the dead is the very truth of mercy it cannot be returned. In three
instances is benevolence superior to charity. Charity near be practised by means of money; benevolence with or without money. Charity is for the poor alone; benevolence either for the poor or for the rich. Charity we can display but to the living; benevolence to the living or the dead.
"After the Lord your God ye shall walk." How is it possible for us to walk after God? By following his attributes and examples. The Lord clothed the naked, as it is written, "The Lord God made to Adam and his wife coats of skin and clothed them." So we must do the same. The Lord visited the sick. "The Lord appeared to him in the grove of Mamre" (which was immediately after the circumcision). So we must do the same. The Lord comforteth the mourner. "It came to pass after the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac." So we must do the same. The Lord buried the dead, as it is written, "He (God) buried him." So must we do the same. To attend to the dead, follow to its last resting-place the dust of our fellows, is an act of benevolence both to the living and the dead; the spirit departed and the mourners.
Rabbi Judah said, "If a person weeps and mourns excessively for a lost relative, his grief becomes a murmur against the will of God, and he may soon be obliged to weep for another death." We should justify the decree of God, and exclaim with Job, "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken; blessed be the name of the Lord."
Hospitality is another attribute of benevolence. It is said of Abraham, "And he planted an orchard." This was not an orchard as we understand the word, but an inn. Abraham opened his house to passing travellers, and entertained them in a hospitable manner. When his guests thanked him for his attention, Abraham replied, "Do not thank me, for I am not the owner of this place; thank
[paragraph continues] God, who created heaven and earth." In this manner he made the name of God known among the heathens. Therefore he gave us an example of hospitality which we should follow, as it is written in the proverbs of the fathers, "Let thy house be open wide as a refuge, and let the poor be cordially received within thy walls." When they enter thy house, receive them with a friendly glance, and set immediately before them thy bread and salt. Perhaps the poor man may be hungry, and yet hesitate to ask for food. Even though there may be much to trouble thee, thou must hide thy feelings from thy guests; comfort them if they need kindly words, but lay not thine own troubles before them. Remember how kindly Abraham acted towards the three angels whom he thought were men; how hospitably he treated them, saying, "My lords, if I have found grace in your eyes, do not pass away from your servant," &c. (Gen. 18: 3.) Be always friendly to thy guests, then when thou shalt call upon the Lord He will answer thee.
God knows whether the hearts which seek Him offer Him all of which they are capable. During the existence of the Temple, the Lord received with equal favour the meat offering of a handful of flour and the sacrifice of a bull. So now, the offering of the poor is just as acceptable as the utmost which the rich man can afford, if their hearts are equally with the Lord.
It was said of Rabbi Tarphon, that though a very wealthy man, he was not charitable according to his means. One time Rabbi Akiba said to him, "Shall I invest some money for thee in real estate, in a manner which will be very profitable?" Rabbi Tarphon answered in the affirmative, and brought to Rabbi Akiba four thousand denars in gold, to be so applied. Rabbi Akiba immediately distributed the same among the poor. Some time after this Rabbi
[paragraph continues] Tarphon met Rabbi Akiba, and asked him where the real estate which he had bought for him was situated. Akiba led his friend to the college, and showed him a little boy, who recited for them the 112th psalm. When he reached the ninth verse, "He distributeth, he giveth to the needy, his righteousness endureth for ever:"
"There," said Akiba, "thy property is with David, the king of Israel, who said, 'he distributeth, he giveth to the needy.'"
"And wherefore hast thou done this?" asked Tarphon.
"Knowest thou not," answered Rabbi Akiba, "how Nakdimon, the son of Guryon, was punished because he gave not according to his means?"
"Well," returned the other, "why didst thou not tell me this; could I not have distributed my means without thy aid?"
"Nay," said Akiba, "it is a greater virtue to cause another to give than to give one's self."
From this we may learn that he who is not charitable according to his means will be punished.
Rabbi Jochanan, the son of Lakkai, was once riding outside of Jerusalem, and his pupils had followed him. They saw a poor woman collecting the grain which dropped from the mouths and troughs of some feeding cattle, belonging to Arabs. When she saw the Rabbi, she addressed him in these brief words, "Oh Rabbi, assist me." He replied, "My daughter, whose daughter art thou?"
"I am the daughter of Nakdimon, the son of Guryon," she answered.
"Why, what has become of thy father's money?" asked the Rabbi; "the amount which thou didst receive as a dowry on thy wedding day?"
"Ah," she replied, "is there not a saying in Jerusalem, 'The salt was wanting to the money?'" 1
"And thy husband's money," continued the Rabbi; "what of that?"
"That followed the other," she answered; "I have lost them both."
The Rabbi turned to his scholars and said:
"I remember, when I signed her marriage contract, her father gave her as a dowry one million golden denars, and her husband was wealthy in addition thereto."
The Rabbi sympathised with the woman, helped her, and wept for her.
"Happy are ye, oh sons of Israel," he said; "as long as ye perform the will of God naught can conquer ye; but if ye fail to fulfil His wishes, even the cattle are superior to ye."
He who does not practise charity commits a sin. This is proven in the life of Nachum.
Nachum, whatever occurred to him, was in the habit of saying, "This too is for the best." In his old age he became blind; both of his hands and both of his legs were amputated, and the trunk of his body was covered with a sore inflammation. His scholars said to him, "If thou art a righteous man, why art thou so sorely afflicted?"
"All this," he answered, "I brought upon myself. Once was travelling to the house of my father-in-law, and I had with me thirty asses laden with provisions and all manner of precious articles. A man by the wayside called to me, 'Oh, Rabbi, assist me.' I told him to wait until I unloaded
my asses. When that time arrived and I had removed their burdens from my beasts, I found to my sorrow that the poor man had fallen and expired. I threw myself upon his body and wept bitterly. 'Let these eyes, which had no pity on thee, be blind,' I said; 'these hands that delayed to assist thee, let them be cut off, and also these feet, which did not run to aid thee.' And yet I was not satisfied until I prayed that my whole body might be stricken with a sore inflammation. Rabbi Akiba said to me, 'Woe to me that I find thee in this state!' But I replied, 'Happy to thee that thou meetest me in this state, for through this I hope that my iniquity may be forgiven, and all my righteous deeds still remain recorded to gain me a reward of life eternal in the future world.'"
Rabbi Janay upon seeing a man bestowing alms in a public place, said, "Thou hadst better not have given at all, than to have bestowed alms so openly and put the poor man to shame.
"One should rather be thrown into a fiery furnace than be the means of bringing another to public shame."
The Rabbis particularly insist that we are not to confine the exercise of charity to our own people, for the law of Moses inculcates kindness and hospitality towards the stranger within our gates. Even the animals are especially remembered in his most merciful code.
Rabbi Juda said, "No one should sit down to his own meals, until seeing that all the animals dependent upon his care are provided for."
Rabbi Jochanan has said that it is as pleasing in God's sight if we are kind and hospitable to strangers, as if we rise up early to study His law; because the former is in fact putting His law into practice. He also said, "He who
is active in kindnesses towards his fellows, is forgiven his sins."
Both this Rabbi and Abba say it is better to lend to the poor than to give to them, for it prevents them from feeling ashamed of their poverty, and is really a more charitable manner of aiding them. The Rabbis have always taught that kindness is more than the mere almsgiving of charity, for it includes pleasant words with the more substantial help.
235:1 Salt is used to preserve meat; without salt the meat rots. Charity is to money even as salt is to meat.