Woman with pushkes (charity boxes) representing different communal organizations, at a cemetery, Lithuania, ca. 1935. (YIVO)

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Providing assistance to the weak and needy is a religious and social tradition in the Jewish community. The attitude toward giving is rooted in the recognition that an impoverished person is an integral part of the local community and as such is bound by its norms; yet, all members of the community are entitled to a dignified existence. Poverty does not translate into exclusion from society and therefore does not grant the poor any special privileges with respect to conduct and acceptance of the community’s authority. For this reason, even those who receive assistance are not exempt from participating in communal efforts. Jewish halakhic principles hold that even a person maintained by charity is obligated to give charity.

Still, the poor were exempt from paying direct taxes. It is apparent, then, that the assistance offered was never intended to eliminate social and economic stratification, but was to provide minimal means of support so that such individuals would not live out their lives in abject poverty. In every East European Jewish community there were frameworks for the provision of assistance, both private and public. The system was meant to help those who lacked minimal means of subsistence, as the matter was described, for example, by Rabbi Tsevi Hirsh Koidanover in seventeenth-century Frankfurt am Main: “The poor person not only lives in a room that is open to the cold because of cracks and wide fissures but lacks the money to purchase wood for fuel . . . the cold breaks his spirit and his body . . . and he goes about virtually unclad and barefoot. . . .”

People waiting to receive food from Tomkhe ‘Aniyim (Supporters of the Poor), a charitable organization, Warsaw, ca. 1915. (YIVO)

This group included poor orphans and widows; the disabled; ordinary people who became impoverished because of poor business management or natural disaster; and communal functionaries (rabbis or dayanim [judges]) who had grown old or were imprisoned for their public activities, and their widows. In some communities, those who required assistance because they devoted all their time to Torah study were also included. Within this structure, three different groups entitled to aid were identified, and the attitude toward the different groups was in keeping with the principle that “the poor of your city are given precedence” (BT Bava metsi‘a’ 71a). The poor were categorized into three groups: local residents; the needy who lived outside the community; and those living in the Land of Israel. Each group benefited from its own special system of aid.

Local Assistance

An East European Jewish community viewed itself as obligated to each of its members, as reflected in an enactment of the community of Poznań: “Therefore the community shall set their watchful eye on the poor, and the community is obligated that each be given maintenance in accordance with the size of his household” (Dov Avron, Acta Electorum, Communitatis Judaeorum Posnaniensium (1621–1835) [Jerusalem, 1967], p. 30, enactment 153).

Family visiting the grave of Yisra’el Yitsḥak, son of Shemu’el Zindl, who, according to his tombstone, “was a giver of charity,” Włoszczowa, Poland, 1920s–1930s. Photograph by A. Pieczysty. (YIVO)

Local charitable institutions and forms of social assistance existed in virtually all communities. In the larger ones, the charity network operated in a number of circles, the first of which involved the private initiatives of individual members. Such initiatives were most important in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in contrast to earlier periods when collective communal activities were more significant. Individual donors determined who would receive their help and provided assistance in accordance with their economic means and the relationship between the donor and the recipient. This support was offered either with the knowledge of both parties, or in the framework of a “secret donation” in which the recipient did not know the identity of the benefactor.

Private donations also included the initiatives of individuals whose benefaction was aimed at more than a single family. Such people, mainly women, collected money and distributed it to a large number of needy people, whether directly, or by way of gemaḥim (charity funds), or through food distribution, all outside an organizational or institutional framework. For example, Dvora Esters of Vilna initiated a project to distribute charity to a large number of needy families. The project was funded by donations raised by Esters herself.

The second circle involved informal public projects of assistance and charity, including aid provided by professional societies (tailors, shoemakers, and the like) who collected a fixed tax from members in order to help those beset by financial troubles. In addition, local organizations were established expressly for such purposes, among them hakhnasat orḥim for welcoming visitors, and bikur ḥolim for visiting the sick. These societies operated on a voluntary basis and were usually funded by contributions made to charity boxes and plates set up in the prayer houses of these associations. In some cases, these societies also benefited from communal funding.

The third circle involved the formal charity department of the local community, which in most places was called ha-tsedakah ha-gedolah (lit., “the great charity”). This body was elected annually by those members of the community who enjoyed voting privileges, and its public standing was second only to the kahal (communal government). Ha-tsedakah ha-gedolah was headed by well-known and distinguished personalities, whose participation added to its prestige and ability to fulfill its role in the best possible manner. It was responsible for offering assistance in a wide variety of areas: providing a weekly allowance to those in need; raising orphaned children; helping dowerless brides; burying paupers; establishing and operating schools for orphans and the children of the poor; distributing flour and matzot before Passover; providing medical services to the poor; operating soup kitchens; and ransoming members of the community who had been imprisoned by local magnates either for blackmail purposes or during times of warfare. It also oversaw the hekdesh—most often a neglected structure at the edge of the settlement that housed people with infectious illnesses, the homeless, and the itinerant poor.

Assistance for Nonresidents

The poor and needy who were not members of the local community (“guests” or “outsiders”) were divided into three subgroups: itinerant paupers and beggars; people who sought funds for specific causes; and refugees.

Pidyon ha-nefesh (Ransom of the Soul). Charitable giving coupon in the amount of 50,000 marks for the new year for Bet Leḥem [Bethlehem], a hospital or social welfare institution, Warsaw (?), Poland, 1923. Artwork by M. Zaspitski. The Hebrew inscriptions reminds donors that, as stated in the Yom Kippur liturgy, charity is a means of averting a harsh decree, or of “ransoming one’s soul.” (YIVO)

Paupers and beggars who regularly wandered from one community to the next were often characterized by their nonnormative conduct: “Many were caught in brothels and saloons and other unclean places that the mind does not tolerate . . .” (Simon Dubnow, Pinkas medinat Lita [Berlin, 1925], p. 17, enactment 88). Accordingly, efforts were made to shorten the stay of such people within the boundaries of the community—usually in the hekdesh—and the assistance offered to them was extremely limited.

The second division included those who collected charity for specific purposes, including for dowries. These people received limited help, and were only granted such assistance when they presented a letter of recommendation.

Refugees fleeing riots, pogroms, and wars were assisted as well. In times of such emergencies (an example is the great wave of refugees in 1648–1649), the communities were accustomed to “feed and support those poor people who had been forced to flee, like the rest of the poor of the city” (Dubnow, 1925, p. 110, enactment 460). This assistance, too, was granted for a limited time only, and after a certain period had passed, the refugees were forced to leave the host community. This category came to include groups of Jewish soldiers serving in the state army. When they were stationed in or near a particular city, the local community undertook to supply them with kosher food.

The Poor of the Land of Israel

Title page of the pinkes of a Bessarabian gemilut ḥesed (charitable society), Bacău, Bessarabia (now in Moldova), 1836. (YIVO)

Most communities operated a separate route to collect funds on behalf of Jews in the Land of Israel. Though these Jews were not necessarily poor, providing them with assistance was considered an obligation of the local charity system. The funds that were designated from the outset for this purpose were collected separately. They were then transferred by way of shadarim (emissaries) who made their way to the community, or by the “society of pekidim and amarkalim” (clerks and administrators) based in Amsterdam, which administered funds throughout Europe to support the settlers in the Land of Israel. This category of charity also provided help to other Jewish communities that had been struck by fire, pogrom, epidemic, or hunger, and required immediate assistance.

Sources of Funding, Collection, and Distribution

In order to operate the broad and variegated charity network, and especially that which fell into the responsibility of the tsedakah gedolah, the communities needed funding resources. Main sources came from annual direct taxes; consumption taxes; judicial fines; and donations. However, to avoid the situation in which other needs might be given precedence over helping the poor and destitute, the funding system of the tsedakah gedolah chest was separated from the general communal treasury. This was accomplished by assigning specific funding sources for the purposes of welfare.

Thus, for example, in the enactments of the communal authorities of Poznań, part of the consumption taxes on meat, salt, and fish were exclusively designated for charitable purposes. In another instance, a special fund was established in Kraków in 1633 to provide for dowerless brides. In the middle of the eighteenth century, a detailed list of monetary resources designated for charitable purposes was compiled in Vilna: there was tax on kosher slaughtering; tax on flour ground for the baking of matzot on Passover; tax on etrogim purchased for Sukkot; tax on the establishment of private synagogues; and taxes on rental fees paid to the community by butchers for their shops. According to the budget of the Poznań community for the years 1637–1638, about 20 percent of the community’s income was set aside for allowances for the needy, for educating the children of the poor, for providing dowries for poor brides, and for contributions to the Land of Israel (Bernard D. Weinryb, “Studies in the Communal History of Polish Jewry II,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 15 [1945]: 124).

Volunteers who collected funds on a "Flower Day" fundraising drive to benefit a children's soup kitchen, Zdzieciol, Poland (now Dyatlovo, Bel.), 1919. In Hebrew on the pushkes (collection boxes): "Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitents through righteousness." Photograph by Lejbowicz. (YIVO)

Assistance was given in a wide variety of ways: a weekly allowance; guaranteeing minimal nutrition through providing foodstuffs; running soup kitchens and establishing the obligation of hosting a “paupers’ meal” at family and communal affairs; and providing the poor with medical care, clothing, and educational services at no cost. The most important element in this system was the weekly allowance distributed to the needy. For this purpose, an orderly process was established that included regular tests for eligibility and also methodical systems of collection, distribution, and supervision. The tsedakah gedolah verified the assets of the potential recipients and observed their standard of living. Receiving an allowance was conditioned on the fact that the family’s turning to the community charity chest for support was rooted in its inability to reach a level of income needed for a dignified existence. Moreover, receiving help was conditioned on living a modest lifestyle. Thus, for example, poor young women were sometimes obliged to work as domestic servants for a period of years in order to accumulate a dowry that would permit them to marry. A poor man was expected, as a condition for receiving his allowance, to conduct modest family celebrations such as his son’s circumcision.

The responsibility of collecting the charity funds fell upon the wardens of the tsedakah gedolah. For this purpose they were granted wide authority, the matter being repeated over and over again in the communal enactments. Funds destined for charitable purposes were collected during the first half of the week so that those eligible for support could receive the money on time and to use it to buy food for the Sabbath. Any delay in the collection of funds had an immediate effect on the subsistence of the weakest members of society. For this reason, the wardens used all the means at their disposal to ensure regular collection. Thus, for example, when the butchers of Vilna began a tax strike in 1823 and the communal welfare system faced the threat of collapse, the wardens did not hesitate to turn to non-Jewish authorities to force the butchers to continue regular payments.

Before the holidays of the month of Tishre (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot), and before Passover, the poor received a larger allowance. On Hanukkah and Purim (for which the tradition specifically entitled the recipients to special donations), the poor were accustomed to go from door to door to receive their contributions. In a number of communities, donations would be collected before Purim “so that the householder not be put to shame by the poor.” A weekly allowance was distributed either by the wardens themselves or by the communal beadles. In some places, the poor would come to the community offices in order to receive their allowances, while in other locations the allowances were given to the eligible in their own homes, “so as not to embarrass them.”

Suggested Reading

Judah Bergman, Ha-Tsedakah be-Yisra’el (Jerusalem, 1974/75); Ephraim Frisch, An Historical Survey of Jewish Philanthropy (New York, 1969); Elliott S. Horowitz, “‘Ve-yiheyu ‘aniyim (hagunim) bene betkha’: Tsedakah, ‘aniyim, u-pikuaḥ ḥevrati bi-kehilot yehude Eropah ben yeme ha-benayim le-re’shit ha-‘et ha-ḥadashah,” in Dat ve-khalkalah, ed. Menaḥem Ben-Sasson, pp. 209–231 (Jerusalem, 1995); Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages, trans. Bernard Dov Cooperman (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000); Isaac Levitats, The Jewish Community in Russia, 1772–1844 (New York, 1970), pp. 246–267; Leo Rosenberg, “Armenwesen und soziale fürsorge im ostjudentum,” Der Jude 2 (1917–1918): 321–339; Aryeh Tartakower, “‘Al ofi ha-‘oni ha-yehudi veha-tsedakah ha-yehudit,” in Kelal Yisra’el: Perakim ba-sotsyologyah shel ha-‘am ha-yehudi, pp. 431–438 (Jerusalem, 1954); Tomasz Wiśniewski, “The Linas-Hatsedek Charitable Fraternity in Bialystok, 1885–1939,” Polin 7 (1992): 121–132; Mordechai Zalkin, “‘Ha-Katsavim de-poh parku ‘ol’: Me’afyenim u-megamot be-fe‘ilut ma‘arekhet ha-revaḥah bi-kehilat Vilnah be-re’shit ha-me’ah ha-19,” in Mi-Vilnah li-Yerushalayim, ed. David Assaf et al., pp. 25–42 (Jerusalem, 2002).



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss