Is the welfare state Jewish?

Is the traditional Jewish commandment of charity a precursor to the modern welfare state. Based on a comparison of both, Hillel Gershuni argues no.

What does traditional charity have to do with the modern welfare state? Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

What do traditional Jewish sources have to do with the welfare state?

At first sight, it’s hard to find any real connection. The welfare state is a modern concept, an invention less than two centuries old, whose full implementation was not realized until the second half of the twentieth. Still, many religious Jews see it as something natural, moral and just, and even more than this—a natural outgrowth of traditional Jewish sources.

In this article, I will examine that assumption in depth. But first, we must examine the sources of the welfare state itself, and thus learn a thing or two about how it actually works.

The origins and growth of the welfare state

The modern welfare state started with German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the late 19th century. As part of his desire to unify Germany, recently created from an amalgamation of smaller states, Germany declared a policy of a social “safety net”. For the first time, German citizens had “social security” which took care of pensions, accident insurance and institutional medical care. The system fit nicely into Bismarck’s “police state”, a multifaceted bureaucratic system of clerks and officers who were the state’s messengers in every corner of the land.

The Sozialstaat, or “social state”, was among other things also a response to socialist and communist ideas which were prevalent at the time. Bismarck’s goal was to take the sting out of these ideas and calm the populace down. For this very reason, the communists opposed the Sozialstaat, seeing it as nothing more than a smokescreen preventing the true communist salvation.

Bismarck’s ideas permeated into other countries, and left-wing politicians introduced legislation to bring the institutions of welfare, education and health—once in the hands of citizens, voluntary institutions and religious organizations—under the wing of the state.

The decisive shift in favor of the welfare state came during the Great Depression, for which capitalism itself was blamed (wrongly, as it later turned out), and the welfare state model seemed to many as the “middle road” between the extremisms of laissez-faire capitalism and Bolshevik communism. FDR’s “New Deal” was the most prominent example of this model.

But the modern welfare state as we know it today did not truly emerge until after WWII. Impressed by the efficiency of emergency state organs, supporters of the welfare state wished to implement this system in times of peace as well. In 1942, the “Beveridge Report” was published, which recommended nationalizing a significant percentage of social services and erecting an extensive social security system. The report was quickly and warmly adopted by the two big parties.

Thus the path was paved for one of the greatest experiments in modern economic history. Nationalizations picked up speed, many national authorities were established, and the welfare state with all its familiar branches—social security, compulsory pension plans, nationalized education and health and more—was underway. An attempt to duplicate this model in the United States was made by President Lyndon Johnson with his Great Society program, which aimed to grow the welfare state to unprecedented proportions.

All throughout, there were voices against socialist policy in general and the welfare state in particular, but these voices were weak politically, and the promise of a bright future in which there would be no more poor, unemployed or sick was simply too attractive to allow for critical scrutiny. Despite this, but a few decades passed when people discovered the huge economic hole left by the welfare state, and in the late 1970s and 1980s a dramatic political change occurred, embodied by the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (and in Israel by the rise of the pro-free market Likud). This political upheaval included a number of liberalization moves, but the overgrown bureaucracy is still alive and kicking, and huge and debt-ridden institutions like Social Security are still thriving in various countries.

The voices against the welfare state made two types of arguments. The primary argument was based on the facts: the promises of the welfare state, argued many economists, cannot be realized except at a cost which exceeds those promises. The welfare state, they argued, creates too heavy a burden on the economic system, which will eventually lead to a collapse which will harm many families.

Others argued against the welfare state in terms of values: the welfare state may speak in the name of exalted values such as compassion, solidarity, helping the poor and promoting social equality, but in practice it does so by unequally taking money from citizens and encouraging and rewarding self-destructive behavior. The evidence argument is worthy of a separate discussion, but in this article we will tackle the values question:

Are the values of the welfare state close to the values of traditional Judaism or do they contradict each other?

Community charity boxes hang on a fence in a street in the Ultra Orthodox neighborhood of Sanhedria in Jerusalem, September 22, 2014. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ???? ??????? ???? ???? ????? ????? ???? ??????? ???????
The enemy of the welfare state: private charity boxes. Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

The yardstick principle

There is no-one who claims that Jewish sources advocate anything as all-encompassing and extensive as the modern welfare state. However, a common argument is that one can find hints in traditional sources which could then be expanded into a rationale for the welfare state in light of the change in the times and circumstances. In other words: if Jewish communities focused on charity at the community and city levels in the past, it’s only logical to then expand these services to the level of the modern state once it was founded.

This assumption, which also exists outside the standard Judaism-Modernity discussions, ignores a number of essential aspects beyond these arguments. We need to focus in this context on what is known as the “Yardstick Principle”: the whole, we learn many times, is not the sum of its parts—sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, and sometimes it’s something different altogether.

This can be demonstrated from the field of physics: the ant can lift a weight many times its own, but if we grow the ant to human size it won’t be able to carry a house, but will be crushed by it. Physicist Michio Kaku noted that even King Kong would not be able to take a single step in the world without collapsing. This is because his physical strength grew by two dimensions—the length and width of his muscle—while his weight grew by three.

If we return to the field of politics, the same is true when it comes to social behavior: relations within a family are not the same as those within a large community, neither are similar to the relations between people in a city, and none are comparable to managing an entire state. Family relations are largely based on common genes and a partial sharing of interests, as well as intimate knowledge of each other. The loves and quarrels of a family are far more personal than in a large community. In a family, for instance, you will find less deals involving money for services and far more one-sided as well as mutual altruism, but also many more non-monetary quarrels and fights.

When you change the yardstick, things change at the fundamental level. A mayor cannot run a city like a mother and father raise their children. It is certainly true that anything the family members can do should be left to them to do themselves. Even if the mayor sees a family which in his opinion is not being raised optimally, it’s not recommended that he intervene. Both he and his advisors lack intimate knowledge with the specific cases, a shortcoming guaranteed to lead to trouble. This is true of any government office which tries to administer all municipal services on its own.

The welfare state and Judaism—points of convergence

Let’s now discuss the relationship between Judaism and the welfare state in light of this principle. I will focus here on matters regarding the distribution of wealth and concern for the needy and set aside the question of the nature of the health and educational systems, though the conclusions of such a discussion would not be significantly different from those in the discussion below.

In brief, the health system known from our sources is entirely private, while in the educational field we all know of the “ordinance of Yehoshua Ben Gamla” whose main thrust is also teaching Torah to orphaned children, by hiring elementary teachers in every community. Not only is this a community-based system and not a state-based one (see more below), this is not an attempt at enforcing “equality” between people of means and those who aren’t, but simply one ensuring a basic foundation of Torah study for every student.

If we return to the welfare state concept of providing national level assistance, these are the primary points of similarity between the modern welfare state and that which arises from traditional Jewish sources:

Judaism has a commandment of charity and helping others—the welfare state is meant to help weaker citizens.

In Judaism, money is collected for this purpose—the welfare state collects taxes.

In general: Judaism opposes pure egoism and expects every individual to contribute; the welfare state also opposes egoism and expects people to pay taxes to help the weaker among them.

No-one disputes the importance of the commandment of charity in Judaism. Here, for instance, is Maimonides (Hil. Matnot Aniyim 7:1-2):

It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor among the Jewish people, according to what is appropriate for the poor person if this is within the financial capacity of the donor, as [Deut. 15:5] states: “You shall certainly open your hand to him.” [Lev. 25:35] states: “You shall support him, a stranger and a resident and they shall live with you,” and [ibid. :36] states: “And your brother shall live with you.”

Anyone who sees a poor person asking and turns his eyes away from him and does not give him charity transgresses a negative commandment, as [Deut. 15:7] states: “Do not harden your heart or close your hand against your brother, the poor person.”

Lest you say, there’s a great difference! While the commandment of charity is voluntary, the welfare state forces contributions to its efforts! Well, here’s Maimonides on forcing people to give to charity (ibid. 7:10):

When a person does not want to give charity or desires to give less than what is appropriate for him, the court should compel him and give him stripes for rebellious conduct until he gives the amount it was estimated that he should give. We take possession of his property when he is present and expropriate the amount that is appropriate for him to give. We expropriate property for the sake of charity even on Fridays.

As we can easily see, the institution of charity is not merely a private affair, but a public institution (ibid. 9:1-3):

In every city where Jews live, they are obligated to appoint faithful, men of renown as trustees of a charitable fund. They should circulate among the people from Friday to Friday and take from each person what is appropriate for him to give and the assessment made upon him. They then allocate the money from Friday to Friday, giving each poor person sufficient food for seven days. This is called the kupah.

Similarly, we appoint trustees who take bread, different types of food, fruit, or money from every courtyard from those who make a spontaneous donation and divide what was collected among the poor in the evening, giving each poor person sustenance for that day. This is called the tamchui.

We have never seen nor heard of a Jewish community that does not have a kupah for charity. A tamchui, by contrast, exists in some communities, but not in others. The common practice at present is that the trustees of the kupah circulate [among the community and collect] every day and divide [the proceeds] every Friday.

Charity in Judaism, then, is a public institution based on the compulsory exaction of money and distributing it to others, and it most certainly does not allow individuals the option of not contributing. We should note that Maimonides’ opinion is not the only one; there are other Rishonim who opposed forcing people to give to charity. But his opinion was accepted in later generations, and we will discuss the issue on its basis.

A Jewish religious man sings in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, November 19 2009. Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash90. *** Local Caption *** ???? ????? ????? ???? ??????? ??? ???? ????? ??????? ???? ??????? ??????
Jews are forced to give charity – within limits. A Breslaver collects charity. Photo: Avir Sultan, Flash90

The welfare state and Judaism—points of divergence

However, the similarities between Maimonides’ ruling and the principle of the modern welfare state are highly misleading. Maimonides speaks of a “town which has Jews.” In pre-modern times, a town usually included a few hundreds and sometimes even only a few dozens of people (there were exceptions which contained thousands and even tens of thousands, but they were not the rule). In that town “there are Jews.” In other words, it’s a city in the diaspora, in which there is a “Jewish community,” a small one.

So, there is coercion here, but not at the level of a government ministry or even a municipality. The people doing the coercing are the community benefactors and the community’s “court.” In a small community, everyone knows everyone, and they can personally evaluate each individual’s ability to contribute. In a large city, and certainly in a state, you already need a whole bureaucracy of clerks and assessors and collectors, which can make the whole business particularly problematic.

But the yardstick issue is not the only difference between the traditional Jewish system and that of the modern welfare state; this is merely the symptom, not the cause, if you will. There is a series of essential differences between the two:


The rationale behind the modern welfare state is often explained in terms of “redistributing the wealth.” This motivation is absent from Judaism and even contrary to its purpose. If we recall the verses Maimonides used to justify coercing contributions to charity:

“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs.” (Deut. 15: 7-8)

“If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.” (Lev. 25:35)

These verses speak of basic compassion between people. There is a commandment to help the poor, out of human concern for your brother—but certainly not “redistribution of wealth.”

To the contrary, Judaism has no contempt for rich people.  It was even said of Rav Yehuda Hanasi and Rabbi Akiva that they used to honor rich people (BT Eruvin 86a). Of particular interest is the continuation of the gemara and Rashi’s commentary: “As Raba b. Mari taught: ‘May he be enthroned before God for ever, appoint mercy and truth that they may preserve him,’ (Ps. 61:8) when ‘may he be enthroned before God for ever’? When he ‘appoint mercy and truth – that they may preserve him’” on which Rashi states “…when rich people sat, and benefited and made food available to the poor, and they will preserve him.”

Our ancients understood a basic concept that many modern thinkers seem to slip up on: economics is not a zero sum game, in which the poor must lose so that the rich may gain. To the contrary—the existence of rich people is what allows poorer people to live more comfortably than they would without them. Halacha even expressly prohibits one from giving away too much of his property, ruling that “If a man wishes to spend liberally, he should not spend more than a fifth” (Ketubot 5a and parallel passages). In other words, a man may not give more than a fifth of his wealth to charity, lest he himself sink into poverty (ibid.; Maimonides Hil. Archin Veharamin 8:13). Here, too, the understanding is that even the voluntary distribution of wealth is not always a welcome thing, and it needs to be done in measured doses.

We should also note that progressive taxation, of the kind so prevalent in welfare states, is also unknown in our sources, and can even be seen as outright theft, due to its non-uniformity. One writer from our own times brought a source which spoke of charity exacted “from the wealthy according to his wealth” and added “that is, progressive”—but failed to understand that this principle does not mean a higher rate of exaction but rather a higher sum, in accordance with the wealthy person’s assets (and, indeed, that is what “progressive taxation” meant before it was changed to mean a higher tax rate). It is for this reason that there were Jewish religious rulers who ruled that it is permitted to evade taxation, despite the rule of dina de’malchuta dina [“The law of the kingdom is law”], because progressive taxation is in their opinion “royal theft” such as a King who abuses any particular individuals. There is no commandment to pay this nor legal authority to do so.

As for charity: yes, the community does indeed force its members to give charity, but the assumption was always that charity is a personal obligation on each and every individual—even poor people who live off charity need to contribute (Maimonides Hil. Matnot Aniyim 7:5). Redistribution of wealth this is not.

In Judaism, the giving of charity is thus the expression of a person’s desire to help his brother. There is also a real and tangible goal here: to improve the lot of the poor without really harming the well-off. In addition, there is the moral imperative: when you give to someone else from your own, you become a partner in the troubles of others. You also subvert your bad inclination to keep all your money by you for higher purposes. Such a vision of charity as meant to improve the attributes of Man can also be seen by Maimonides, according to which better that a man give a small sum a thousand times, than one large sum all at once, because by doing the former, he strengthens his attribute of generosity in a better way (Commentary on Mishna Avot 3:15).

This element of justification as a commandment, as a declaration of a shared fate, as working on improving one’s attributes or worship of God, is entirely absent from the manner in which the welfare state collects money, thus removing one of the prominent motives of charity in Judaism. Indeed, not only does it disappear, but oftentimes the supporters of the welfare state attack private charity, seeing the blooming of charitable organizations as a “state failure” (after all, the state is responsible for everyone’s welfare, not private individuals). From this often derives active avoidance of charitable giving—as far as the welfare state supporter is concerned, he has “given” enough to charity—and in extreme cases even calls not to give to the needy, for various political reasons. In any event, this difference between charity and taxation brings us to another critical difference between the modern welfare state and traditional Jewish charity:

The method

The modern welfare state exacts taxes in a non-transparent manner, which are then divided among the various expenses of the government, of which helping the poor is only a small portion. Thus does the welfare state use the tool of taxation, which has its own history, and mixes it in with the issue of charity, when originally these were two different issues. Taxes were exacted by the kingdom to ensure its existence: maintaining an army and policing force, a justice system, some infrastructure and monuments and so forth.

Hazal recognized the legitimacy of taxation and even forbade tax evasion, but only when it was clear that the exaction was equal and fair. When the kingdom or the contracted tax collector harasses a particular individual or community, this is considered to be pure theft. The poskim distinguished in this context “dina demalchuta” which is valid and “gazlanuta demalcha” [“Royal theft”] which does not. (See above, regarding internal Jewish matters, Halacha recognized the right of members of a community or a city to exact taxes to improve the city, for instance to build a wall (Mishna Bava Batra 1.5). But all this applies when the exaction is for a specific purpose, with every exaction having its own rules (Cf. BT Bava Batra 7b). Charity, for instance, is gathered into a collection meant solely for that—in fact, to two separate collections, a “kupa” for collected money and a “tamhui” for collected food.

The death of shame

One of the ostensible advantages of distributing charity via the welfare state is the disappearance of shame. Not for nothing do welfare state supporters argue that this is not charity but justice. The rationale behind the welfare state is that distribution of resources is not an act of mercy and generosity but reparation for a basic injustice according to which one has more than the other, and in any event the poor gain something real here: when they receive money from the state coffers, they feel no shame. This is because they were not given the money by any particular person, but by an amorphous construct known as the “state,” which has “laws.”

Everyone knows that using the law to your advantage is no shame and if the money goes into the bank account, that’s great. You won’t see people ashamed to go to the unemployment office, for instance, or feel embarrassment when they see that their children’s allowance made it into their bank account. To the contrary, when these allowances are cut, they feel hurt and go out to fight: if they are “entitled” to this money, then when the amount is cut or the state official is making problems, this must then be a personal act of abuse.

Judaism also emphasizes reducing the shame a person feels when receiving welfare. Among the levels of charity Maimonides notes in his description of the commandment of charity (Hil. Matnot Aniyim 10:7-13), the higher levels (after one in which the poor person receives aid in getting out of poverty, that is, receives a “rod” and not a “fish”), are those in which shame is reduced among those who receive it. For instance, “A person should always construct himself and bear hardship rather than appeal to people at large and make himself a burden on the community. Our Sages commanded, saying: “Make your Sabbaths as weekdays, and do not appeal to people at large.” Even a distinguished sage who becomes poor should involve himself in a profession—even a degrading one—rather than appeal to people at large. It is preferable for a person to skin the hide of animal carcasses, rather than tell people: “I am a great sage…” or “I am a priest, grant me sustenance.” Our Sages commanded conducting oneself in such a manner.” (ibid. 10:18)

Nevertheless, we should note upfront: shame does not disappear entirely in Jewish sources. When a poor person takes coin wrapped up in the sage’s garment, he still needs to pass a certain threshold of shame, of the kind which any person with self-respect would not sink to unless his situation is truly serious. Of course, there are always con artists who abuse the system to steal from the public, and Judaism uses religious threats to deter their activity: “Any person who does not need to take [charity] and deceives the people and takes will not reach old age and die until he requires assistance from people at large. He is among those of whom it is said (Jer. 17:5): “Cursed be a person who trusts in mortals.” (Hil. Matnot Aniyim 10:19).

In any event, Judaism does not encourage people to take the money which they are “entitled to” unless they really need it (“[Conversely,] anyone who needs to take [charity] and cannot exist unless he takes, e.g., an elderly man, sick, or beset by afflictions, but is proud and does not take is considered as a murder.” – ibid.). But regarding anyone else, Judaism actually recommends settling for less rather than live at the expense of the public: “A person should always construct himself and bear hardship rather than appeal to people at large and make himself a burden on the community.” (ibid, 10:18)

This is one of the points which demonstrate a sharp difference between the “entitlement mentality” of the welfare state citizen and the “I should help them” attitude in Judaism. This, in turn, is connected to the difference between the modern “rights discourse” and the Jewish “obligations discourse,” which requires separate treatment. It also explains the religious community’s aversion to the 2011 social protest, even though the foundations of charity and compassion in Judaism made much of this public to actually identify with the modern welfare state (mistakenly, as we argue here).

A poor Israeli man collects money from passersby in an underground tunnel,Thursday 19 Oct.2006.Photo by Pierre Terdjman / Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ????? ?? ?????? ???? ????? ??? ??? ????  ????? ?? ?????? ???? ??? ???? ??? ???
Judaism obligates charity and compassion – while fighting against the perpetuation of poverty. Photo: Pierre Turgeman/Flash90

Why is this difference so important?

Emphasizing these differences is so critical because the lack of shame is one of the most prominent and fundamental shortcomings of the welfare state. As many have already shown, the culture of welfare and stipends is the precise opposite of the highest level of charity according to Maimonides—helping a person stand on his own and not require assistance. Stipends presently given by the state encourage people to enter the category of “poor” in order to make money without working too hard. Thus does the welfare state dig a huge hole for its ostensible beneficiaries, leading society itself into a true tailspin. In other words, the welfare state was founded on truly good intentions, but in practice it creates negative incentives, which make the needy even needier.

But when one examines this question, another one naturally arises: can one not argue the same thing against charity in general? If you give charity to a poor person, and particularly if you command people to give to the poor, you give them incentives to remain poor!

There are two answers to this: first, the commandment of charity does give rise to these problems, and Judaism tries to remedy these through religious and moral condemnation of “gaming the system,” as well as tools such as checking the personal background of one who comes to collect charity. Second, and most importantly: the element of shame is critical to prevent such a societal tailspin as occurs in the welfare state. A man’s shame in coming to collect charity is a sort of tax the charity recipient pays to prove the authenticity of his motives, and it significantly reduces the aforementioned inherent dangers in giving it.

This is true of poor people who come to collect from the public charity fund, those who go begging door to door, and those who collect leket, shikh’kha and pe’ah [agricultural products “left behind” for the poor], or come to collect the poor tithe. The very act of asking (or begging), demonstrating that there is an element of charity and mercy towards them, reduces the danger that charity will “encourage” them to remain in their present situation. This, along with the religious exhortations which tell the person to do any job and not become a burden on the public (for comparison’s sake: imagine the response of an honorable person if the employment office clerk directs him to a job “skinning animal carcasses in the market”!), fundamentally changes the effects of the charity system as opposed to that of the modern welfare state.

Epilogue: the welfare state has nothing to do with religious Judaism

The modern welfare state may superficially resemble some ideas which appear in traditional Jewish sources, but the differences in scale, motivation and method create a fundamentally different system, which in many cases is entirely opposed the traditional rationale. This is true for those who give—who no longer have the feeling of fulfilling a commandment or strengthening their personal generosity, and those who receive—who no longer feel a basic level of shame, thus ensuring that he and many others remain where they are, depending as they are on a system that is no longer personal or even communal, but bureaucratic, and thus far less efficient—and far more costly and destructive.

Therefore, despite the superficial similarity, not only does the modern welfare state not derive from traditional Jewish sources; it is actually diametrically opposed to them on critical points. A dispersed communal system of charity, and a state concerned only with the “big issues” such as external and internal security fit the sources far better, avoiding the many, many pitfalls presented by the modern welfare state.

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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1 comments on the article

  1. Dear Hillel,i read article in English translation and I found it most interesting.i would like to add a few comments.first of all before Bismarck hijacked the idea in Europe and especially in England there were Societies of mutual support including trade unions in which subscribers contributed to a fund in case of unemplyment death of husband illness- in other words the sort of provisions now administered by the state.This is a crucial difference because such provision did not involve a huge apparatus to administer it.In fact the apparatus has become the true end of the whole operation,people pay mostly to keep the structure which in theory benefit some of them if that.
    Second point since welfare in general is a good thing,there is no limit to it but there is a limit to the amount of taxation that can be extorted from taxpayers,so inevitably governments opened up financial adventures that created inflation,ever increasing debt the consequences of which are calamitous for whole communities.
    How much better to downscale,bring responsibility to people and help them to better themselves and in the process allow communities to flourish once again instead of The childish idea that wealth is distributed better if authority takes it away from wealth producers and give a bit to everybody,hence creating dependance and universal poverty. How much better the old traditional and sensible way of the Jewish sages and the Torah.Thank you for your scholerly piec Alessandro