Almsgiving in Second Temple Judaism

Pirqe Abot 5:10 E “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours”—this is a truly pious man.

Pirqe Abot 5:13 A–E There are four traits among people who give charity: (1) he who wants to give but does not want others to give—he begrudges what belongs to others; (2) he wants others to give, but he does not want to give—he begrudges what belongs to himself; (3) he will give and he wants others to give—he is truly pious;  (4) he will not give and does not want others to give—he is truly wicked.

Care for the poor was considered virtuous in Second Temple period Judaism.The Law had provision for the poor in Israel. For example, Leviticus 19:9-10 commanded farmers to leave food behind for the poor (the gleaning law, recall the story of Ruth in Boaz’s field). The prophets regularly condemn both Israel and Judah for failing to care for the poor. In fact, the prophets often condemn Israel for preying on the poor. Micah 3:1-3 vividly describes the leaders of Israel and Judah as chopping of the people like meat for the pot! Amos 8:4-6 describes merchants as “buying the poor with silver, the needy for a pair of sandals.” After the return from exile, Nehemiah must address care for the poor (Nehemiah 5:1-13).

The wisdom literature considered care of the poor as a responsibility of the wise person. Proverbs 3:27 (ESV) “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” Proverbs does occasionally link poverty with foolishness. The Second Temple wisdom text Sirach says “almsgiving atones for sin” (Sirach 3:30) and he describes almsgiving as storing treasure in order to escape affliction (Sirach 29:12) and almsgiving like a thank offering (Sirach 35:2).

Sirach 4:3–6 (NRSV) Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. 4 Do not reject a suppliant in distress, or turn your face away from the poor. 5 Do not avert your eye from the needy, and give no one reason to curse you; 6 for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their Creator will hear their prayer.

A Jewish wisdom text known as Pseudo-Phocylides, written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 describes the wise person as ready to give to the poor:

Ps-Phoc 1.22–26 Give to the poor man at once, and do not tell him to come tomorrow. You must fill your hand. Give alms to the needy. Receive the homeless in (your) house, and lead the blind man. Pity the shipwrecked, for navigation is unsure. Extend your hand to him who falls, and save the helpless one.

In the Sibylline Oracles, the writer praises the Jewish people saying “they care for righteousness and virtue and not love of money, which begets innumerable evils for mortal men, war, and limitless famine” (3.234-236). In the Testament of Job, “When any stranger approached to ask alms, he was required to be fed at my table before he would receive his need” (10.4), and he goes on to boast he had “fifty bakeries from which I arranged for the ministry of the table for the poor” (10.7).

There is nothing in the Law, prophets or wisdom literature which implies care for the poor was to be practiced publicly. If you passed by a beggar on the way to the Temple, it was your duty to share something to that beggar.

It was simply assumed a Jewish person would give to the needy. This is why Jesus says “when you give…” He isn’t commanding his listeners to give, he knows that they will. It is the attitude behind the giving that is the issue.


Bibliography: Lee, Kyong-Jin. “Almsgiving” pages 324-325 in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.

4 thoughts on “Almsgiving in Second Temple Judaism

  1. In today’s world most people heavily judge the poor. They are assumed to be lazy or lying about being poor. It is also seen as an unsafe act to give them money. We forget that God is the one who judges people. Our attitudes are the issue as well. I remember Dr. Vinton explaining in a class that it is not up to us what happens with the money we give away, we need to leave that to God. But it is up to us to give and give without hesitation.

  2. I have always found it funny that people think that our culture is completely based on a Biblical mindset. We have a lot of Christian values as a nation but when it comes to giving and hospitality, we are seriously lacking. People in Biblical times just opened their homes to complete strangers at the drop of a hat. There was a culture of trust and giving was expected instead of just being an optional and awkward part of church service. Americans would never let a stranger into their homes and everyone who gives is usually questioned for ulterior motives by anyone in the near vicinity. But this is a cultural phenomenon that might not be safe in modern America. I wonder about the practicalities of implementing this kind of trust system in our world today.

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