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Jewish Responses to Hunger

by Richard Schwartz

1. Involvement

Judaism teaches involvement and concern with the plight of fellow human beings. Every life is sacred, and we are obligated to do what we can to help others. The Torah states, "Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy brother" (Lev. 19:16).

We speak out justifiably against the silence of the world when 6 million Jews and 5 million other people were murdered in the Holocaust. Can we besilent when millions die agonizing deaths because of lack of food? Can weacquiesce to the apathy of the world to the fate of starving people? Elie Wiesel has pointed out that there can be no analogies to the Holocaust, but that it can be used as a reference. In that context, we can consider both the 8 million infants who die each year due to malnutrition and the 6 million Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis. True, victims of hunger are not being singled out because of their religion, race, or nationality, but, like the Holocaust victims, they die while the world goes about its business, grumbling about "high taxes" and personal inconveniences, indifferent to the plight of the starving masses. And yet the Talmud teaches that if one saves a single human life, it is as if one has saved a whole world. What then if one permits a single life to perish? Or 10 million?

The Hebrew prophets berated those who were content and comfortable while others were in great distress:

Tremble you women who are at ease, Shudder you complacent ones; Strip and make yourselves bare, Gird sackcloth upon your loins. (Isaiah. 32:11)

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.... Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory And stretch themselves upon their couches.... Who drink wine from bowls And anoint themselves with the finest oils But are not grieved at the ruin of Joseph. (Amos 6:1,4,6)

Like other peoples, Jews have frequently experienced hunger. Because of famines, Abraham was forced to go to Egypt (Genesis 12:10), Isaac went to the land of Avimelech, king of the Philistine, in Gerar (Genesis 26:1), the children of Jacob went to Egypt to buy grain (Genesis 42:1-3), and Naomi and her family fled Israel and went to Moab (Ruth 1:1-2). There were also famines in the reigns of King David (2 Samuel 21:1) and King Ahab (1 Kings 18:1-2).

Jews know the sorrow of great hunger. The Prophet Jeremiah stated: "Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who pined away, stricken by want of the yield of the field" (Lamentations 4:9).

Based on Jewish values and Jewish history, we must identify with the starving masses of the world. We must be involved by speaking out and acting. Some traditional Jewish ways to help needy people are to pursue justice, practice charity, show compassion, share resources, and simplify lifestyles.


The pursuit of a just society is one of the most fundamental concepts of Judaism. Note two things about the following important statement in Deuteronomy (16:20): "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue." First, the word "justice" is repeated. This is a very infrequent occurrence in the Torah. When words are repeated, it is generally to add emphasis. Second, we are told to pursue justice. Hence we are not to wait for the right opportunity, the right time and place, but are to pursue or run after opportunities to practice justice.

King Solomon asserts:

To do righteousness and justice is preferred by God above sacrifice. (Proverbs 21:3)

The psalmist writes: "Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute" (Psalms 82:3-4).

The prophet Amos cries out that God does not only want sacrifices, but:

Let justice well up as waters,and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24)

Isaiah tells us:

The Lord of Hosts shall be exalted in justice, The Holy God shows Himself holy in righteousness. (Isaiah 5:16)

The prophets constantly stress the importance of applying justice:

Learn to do well--seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.... Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:17,27)

To practice justice is considered among the highest demands of prophetic religion:

It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, And what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, love mercy And walk humbly with thy God. (Micah 6:8)

The prophet Amos warns the people that without the practice of justice, God is repelled by their worship (5:23,24):

Take away from Me the noise of thy songs; And let Me not hear the melody of thy psalteries. But let justice well up as waters, And righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:23, 24)

The practice of justice is even part of the symbolic betrothal between the Jewish people and God:

And I will betroth thee unto Me forever; Yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness, justice, loving- kindness, and compassion. And I will betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness. And thou shalt know the Lord. (Hosea 2:21-22)

Justice is such an important concept in Judaism that the patriarch Abraham even pleads with God to practice justice: "That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked...shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25)

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman points out that Judaism teaches a special kind of justice, an "empathic justice," which

...seeks to make people identify themselves with each other-- with each other' s needs, with each other's hopes and aspirations, with each other's defeats and frustrations. Because Jews have known the distress of slaves and the loneliness of strangers, we are to project ourselves into their souls and make their plight our own.

He points out that in 36 places in the Torah we are commanded not to mistreat the stranger in our midst.


To help the poor and hungry, Judaism places great stress on the giving of charity. The Hebrew word for charity (tzedakah) literally means justice. In the Jewish tradition, tzedakah is not an act of condescension from one person to another who is in need. It is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, a commandment, to a fellow human being, who has equal status before God. Although Jewish tradition recognizes that the sharing of our resources is also an act of love - as the Torah states, "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev.19:18), it emphasizes that this act of sharing is an act of justice. This is to teach us that people who are in need are entitled to our love and concern. They too are human beings created in the Divine image; they too have a place and a purpose within God's creation.

In the Jewish tradition, failure to give charity is equivalent to idolatry. This may be because a selfish person forgets the One Who made us all, and in becoming preoccupied with personal material needs makes himself or herself into an idol. So important was the giving of charity by Jews that Maimonides was able to say: "Never have I seen or heard of a Jewish community that did not have a charity fund."

Charity was considered so important that it took priority even over the building of the Temple. King Solomon was prohibited from using the silver and gold that David, his father, had accumulated for the building of the Temple, because that wealth should have been used to feed the poor during the three years of famine in King David's reign (1 Kings 7:51).

Judaism urges lending to needy people, to help them become economically self-sufficient:

And if thy brother become impoverished, and his means fail in your proximity; then shalt thou strengthen him:... Take no interest of him or increase.... Thou shalt not give him thy money upon interest.... Leviticus 25:35-37

Every third year of the sabbatical cycle, the needy were to be recipients of the tithe for the poor (one-tenth of one's income) (Deuteronomy 14:28; 26:12).

The general Jewish view toward aiding the poor is indicated in the following verse from the Torah:

If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother; but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth. Deuteronomy 15:7-8

According to Maimonides, the highest form of tzedakah is to prevent a person from becoming poor by providing a loan, a gift, or a job so that he can adequately support himself. Consistent with this concept is the following Talmudic teaching:

It is better to lend to a poor person than to give him alms, and best of all is to provide him with capital for business. Shabbat 63a


Judaism places emphasis on charity because of the great difficulties that poor people face:

If all afflictions in the world were assembled on one side of the scale and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all. Exodus Rabbah, Mishpatim 31:14

Judaism believes that poverty is destructive to the human personality and negatively shapes a person's life experiences: "The ruin of the poor is their poverty" (Prov. 10:15). "Where there is no sustenance, there is no learning." (Ethics if the Fathers 3:21) "The world is darkened for him who has to look to others for sustenance." (Betza 32a) "The sufferings of poverty cause a person to disregard his own sense (of right) and that of his Maker." (Eruvim 41)

Many Torah laws are designed to aid the poor: the corners of the field are to be left uncut for the poor to pick (Leviticus 19:9); the gleanings of the wheat harvest and fallen fruit are to be left for the poor (Leviticus 19:10); during the sabbatical year, the land is to be left fallow so that the poor (as well as animals) may eat of whatever grows freely (Leviticus 25:2-7).

Failure to treat the poor properly is a desecration of God: "Whoso mocketh the poor blasphemeth his maker" (Prov. 17:5). Our father Abraham always went out of his way to aid the poor. He set up inns on the highways so that the poor and the wayfarer would have access to food and drink when in need. In this spirit, the Chafetz Chaim writes that according to halacha (Torah law), the members of a community may compel one another to house wayfarers, just as the community may force individuals to give to tzedakah.

There are several indications in the Jewish tradition that God sides with the poor and oppressed. He intervened in Egypt on behalf of poor, wretched slaves. His prophets constantly castigated those who oppressed the needy. Two proverbs reinforce this message. A negative formulation is in Proverbs 14:31: "He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker." Proverbs 19:17 puts it more positively: "He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord." Hence helping a needy person is like providing a loan to the Creator of the universe.


Closely related to the Jewish values of justice and charity is the importance the Jewish tradition places on compassion. The entire Torah is designed to teach us to be compassionate: "The purpose of the laws of the Torah is to promote compassion, loving-kindness and peace in the world." (Maimonides, Yad Hazakam, Chilchot Shabbat 2:3) The Talmud teaches that "Jews are compassionate children of compassionate parents, and one who shows no pity for fellow creatures is assuredly not of the seed of Abraham, our father." (Bezah 32b) The rabbis considered Jews to be distinguished by three characteristics: compassion, modesty, and benevolence. (Yebamot 79a) As indicated previously, we are to feel empathy for strangers, "for we were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:19). The bircat hamazon (grace recited after meals) speaks of God feeding the whole world with compassion.

While in Egypt, Joseph had two sons during the seven good years of food production, but no children during the seven years of famine. The great Jewish commentator Rashi interprets this to mean that while people are starving, others who have enough should engage in acts of self-denial to show compassion and sympathy.

We are not only to have concern and compassion for Jews, but for all who are in need.

Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us? Why, then, do we deal treacherously with one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors? (Malachai 2:10)

'Are you not like the Ethiopians to Me, O people of Israel?' says the Lord. 'Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt and the Philistine from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?' (Amos 9:7)

As indicated previously, we are to help even our enemies when they lack sufficient food or water (Prov. 25:21).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes very eloquently of the importance of compassion:

Do not suppress this compassion, this sympathy, especially with the sufferings of your fellow man. It is the warning voice of duty, which points out to you your brother in every sufferer, and your own sufferings in his, and awakens the love which tells you that you belong to him and his sufferings with all the powers that you have. Do not suppress it!... See in it the admonition of God that you are to have no joy so long as a brother suffers by your side. (Horeb)


Compassion for the poor and hungry is not enough. A fundamental Jewish principle is that those who have much should share with others who are less fortunate. The Talmudic sage Hillel stresses that we must not be concerned only with our own welfare. "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I?" (Ethics of the Fathers !:14 ). The Haggadah, which we read at the Passover Seder, exhorts us to share. We are to reach out to all who are hungry and in need. The act of prolonging one's meal, on the chance that a poor person may come so that one may give him food, is so meritorious that the table of the person who does this is compared to the altar of the ancient Temple.

Judaism's great emphasis on sharing is also illustrated in the following Chassidic tale:

The story is told of a great rabbi who is given the privilege of seeing the realms of Heaven and Hell before his death. He was taken first to Hell, wherehe was confronted with a huge banquet room in the middle of which was a large elegant table covered with a magnificent and crystal. The table was covered from one end to the other with the most delicious foods that the eyes have ever seen or the mouth tasted. And all around the table people were sitting looking at the food...and wailing. It was such a wail that the rabbi had never heard such a sad sound in his entire life and he asked, "With a luxurious table and the most delicious food, why do these people wail so bitterly?" As he entered the room, he saw the reason for their distress. For although each was confronted with this incredible sight before him, no one was able to eat the food. Each person's arms were splinted so that the elbows could not bend. They could touch the food but could not eat it. The anguish this caused was the reason for the great wail and despair that the rabbi saw and heard.

He was next shown Heaven, and to his surprise he was confronted by the identical scene witnessed in Hell: The large banquet room, elegant table, lavish settings, and sumptuous foods. And, in addition, once again everyone's arms were splinted so the elbows could not bend. Here, however, there was no wailing, but rather joy greater than he had ever experienced in his life. For whereas here too the people could not put the food into their own mouths, each picked up the food and fed it to another. They were thus able to enjoy, not only the beautiful scene, the wonderful smells, and the delicious foods, but the joy of sharing and helping one another.

Rabbi Jay Marcus of the Young Israel of Staten Island comments on the fact that karpas (eating of greens) and yahatz (breaking of the middle matzah for later use as the dessert) are next to each other in the Passover Seder service. He suggests that those who can live on simple things like greens (vegetables, etc.) will more readily divide their possessions and share with others.

To help share God's abundant harvests with the poor, the Torah instructs farmers:

1) If less than three ears of corn were dropped during the harvest, they were not to be gleaned, but were to be left for the poor (Leket).

2) A sheaf forgotten by the farmer could not be retrieved but had to be left for the poor (Shik'khah).

3) A corner of the field always had to be left unharvested; it was the property of the poor (Pe'ah).

4) Every third year a part of the tithe of the harvest had to be set aside for the poor (Ma'aser Ani).

5) On the eve of every holy day, "mat'not Yad," a special gift to the poor, had to be put aside.

Vegetarianism is consistent with this Jewish concept of sharing. As Jay Dinshah, former president of the North American Vegetarian Society, states:

After all, vegetarianism is, more than anything else, the very essence and the very expression of altruistic SHARING,... the sharing of the One Life,... the sharing of the natural resources of the Earth,... the sharing of love, kindness, compassion, and beauty in this life.

Recently a new Jewish group, Mazon, was formed to help Jews share their joyous events with hungry people. It urges people to contribute 3 percent of the money spent for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other celebrations to the group which funnels the money to organizations working to reduce hunger.


While millions starve, it is imperative that those who have much simplify their lives so they can share more with others. A group of outstanding religious leaders, including representatives of different branches of Judaism in the United States and Israel, met in Bellagio, Italy, in May 1975 to consider "The Energy/Food Crisis: A Challenge to Peace, a Call to Faith." They agreed on a statement that included this assertion: "The deepest and strongest expression of any religion is the 'styles of life'that characterizes its believers. It is urgent that religious communities and individuals scrutinize their life style and turn from habits of waste, over consumption, and thoughtless acceptance of the standards propagated by advertisements and social pressures. The cry from millions for food brought us together from many faiths. God--Reality itself--calls us to respond to the cry for food. And we hear it as a cry not only for aid but also for justice."

Simpler life styles, with less wasteful diets, can be an important first step toward justice for the hungry of the world. Simpler diets do not imply a lack of joy or a lack of fellowship. As Proverbs 15:17 states: "Better a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox with hatred."

During the Middle Ages, local Jewish councils sometimes set up "sumptuary laws" for the community; people were forbidden to spend more than a limited amount of money at weddings and other occasions. These laws were designed so that the poor should not be embarrassed at not being able to match the expenditures of the wealthy and so that a financial strain was not placed on the community as a whole. Perhaps the spirit of such laws should be invoked today. Can we continue to consume flesh that wastes so much grain at a time when many are starving? Is it not now time for officiating rabbis to specify guidelines to reduce waste and ostentation at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other occasions?