Begging and Beggars
Although the Bible is concerned with the poor and the needy, there is hardly a reference to begging or to beggars, and there is, in fact, no biblical Hebrew word for it. The needs of the poor were provided by the laws of
, and pe'ah which were the perquisites of the ani, the "poor man," or the evyon, the "needy." The only possible references are not to actual begging and beggars
but are contained in the complementary assurances that whereas the children of the righteous will not have to "seek bread" (Ps. 37:25), the children of the wicked will, after his untimely death, be vagabonds "and seek their bread out of desolate places" (Ps. 109:10).
During the talmudic period, however, the itinerant beggar who goes from house to house figures with some prominence. So characteristic does it seem to have been of social life in those times that the first Mishnah of tractate Shabbat employs the example of the beggar receiving his pittance from the householder, and the various ways in which it might be handed to him, to illustrate the important laws concerning the carrying of articles from a private to a public domain on the Sabbath. The Mishnah also deals with the rights of the beggar who "goes from place to place" and who had sometimes to be provided with lodging for the night (Pe'ah 8:7). It was regarded as immodest for women to beg, with the result that the Mishnah stipulates that if a man left insufficient means for his children, the daughters should remain at home and the sons go from door to door (Ket. 13:3). The New Testament describes the blind beggar Bartimeus sitting by the roadside and begging (Mark 10:46) and a lame beggar soliciting alms at the entrance to the Temple (Acts 3:2). The rabbis are censorious of those beggars who used to feign such afflictions as "blindness, swollen belly, and shrunken leg" in order to arouse the compassion of the charitable (Pe'ah 8:9; Tosef., Pe'ah 4:14). Nevertheless one rabbi takes a charitable view of those impostors, saying that they perform the useful function of exercising the charitable instincts of the people (Ket. 68a). Nor was the cheerful impudent beggar unknown, as the following story in the Talmud indicates: "A beggar once came to Rava who asked him 'What do your meals usually consist of?' 'Plump chicken and matured wine' answered the beggar. 'Do you not consider this a burden on the community?' asked Rava. The beggar retorted: 'I do not take from them – I take what God provides.' At that moment Rava's sister, who had not seen him for 13 years, appeared bringing him a fat chicken and matured wine. 'Just what I told you!' said the beggar" (Ket. 67b).
Nevertheless two factors tended to keep begging within bounds. One was the delicate custom of sending food to the poor in order to spare their feelings (see the examples, Ket. 67b), and the other was the highly organized system of collection for and distribution to the poor through the official kuppah ("charity fund") and tamḥui ("soup kitchen"). As a result, it was proclaimed that relief was actually to be withheld from those who went begging as they had forfeited their rights to organized charity, although a compromise was arrived at not to send such a mendicant away completely empty-handed (BB 9a).
In the early Middle Ages this was established as the actual halakhah (Yad, Mattenat Aniyyim 7:7; Sh. Ar., YD 250:3).
(to BB 9a) explains that it is "because he has accustomed himself to make the rounds, he must suffice with that." On the other hand, Solomon b. Adret, in answer to an enquiry from a community overburdened with beggars, ruled that although "the poor are everywhere supported from the communal chest, if they wish in addition to beg from door to door they may do so, and each should give according to his understanding and desire" (Responsa, pt. 3 no. 380). In Cracow, however, in 1595 and in the Spanish and Portuguese congregation in London in the second half of the 17th century, begging by mendicants was completely outlawed (Balaban, in JJLG, 10 (1913), 342; Barnett, El Libro de los Acuerdos (1931), 9).
This admirable system of organized relief for the poor (cf. Yad, loc. cit., 9:3: "We have never heard of a community which has no charity fund for the relief of the poor, though some have no tamḥui") seems almost to have eliminated beggars until the 17th century. Launcelot Addison (The Present State of the Jews, p. 212) goes out of his way to dispel the belief prevalent in his time that "the Jews have no beggars," which he attributed to the "regular and commendable efforts" by which the Jewish community supplied the needs of the poor. A notable literary description of the English Jewish beggar is Zangwill's King of the Schnorrers.
It would seem that an increase in Jewish mendicancy took place as an aftermath of the
pogroms when hundreds of Polish communities were destroyed and thousands of penniless and destitute Jews roamed throughout Europe. From this time dates the word "shnorrer," the accepted Yiddish term for a beggar which became a characteristic feature of Jewish life. Sometimes the shnorrers openly collected for themselves, at other times for the dowry of a poor bride (see
) or to restore a house which had been burnt down in one of the many conflagrations of wooden houses. If the 18th century has been styled "a century of beggary" as a whole, it certainly applies to the impoverished Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe up to the dawn of the modern period.
Beggary, which was rife in Ereẓ Israel before the establishment of the State of Israel, has been largely eliminated in the streets, as a result of the increased activities of the Ministry of Social Welfare. It is still, however, a feature of the synagogues during the morning services. Beggars consist of two groups, genuine beggars and students of the old-fashioned yeshivot who are to some extent encouraged by the authorities of the yeshivah, not only as a source of subsistence but to afford the worshipers an opportunity of combining prayer with charity. A similar sentiment is held toward beggars in cemeteries. Despite objections that they disturb worshippers, opinion among the Orthodox is opposed to their removal.
Begging as a social phenomenon is associated with migrations. It became prevalent in Jewish history during the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud and especially after the destruction of the Second Temple. This came about as a result of persecutions under Roman rule, as well as the physical and economic insecurity which impoverished the rural class and reduced the urban population to ruin. Yet, despite the increase
in the numbers of poor and those reduced to begging, nothing is heard about Jewish mendicants forming a society and developing their own subculture, as did occur within the non-Jewish world at that time.
Jewish beggars wandering from place to place are more frequently found throughout the Middle Ages. In the Cairo Genizah a large number of letters from beggars complaining of their misfortunes and seeking support have been found. The documents indicate that these itinerant poor wandered from community to community, and from land to land. The Or Zaru'a (hilkhot Ẓedakah 11) of
R. *Isaac of Vienna
mentions that these destitute people customarily equipped themselves with "documents," i.e., letters of recommendation which they would present in their travels as proof of their trustworthiness.
In medieval times there was another class of wanderers who went from place to place, relying upon the hospitality of others, namely, the yeshivah students who moved from one center of Torah study to another. A parallel phenomenon (goliards, vagrant scholars) is found within the student community of Christian society of that time.
At the end of the 17th century, a relatively large class of Jewish beggars, called in non-Jewish sources "Betteljuden," and orḥei porḥei ("flotsam and jetsam") in Jewish literature, developed throughout Europe, especially in Germany. The size of this class is not known exactly, but it has been estimated at as much as 20% of the total Jewish population. Although the reasons for the formation of this class are still not completely clear, it is assumed to have resulted from (i) the natural growth of the Jewish population; (ii) the limited number of Jews permitted to reside in any individual place by the local authorities; and (iii) the unstable economic conditions which brought about drastic changes from extreme wealth to great poverty. The Betteljuden constituted a section within the large class of non-Jewish itinerant poor. These Jewish vagabonds, like their Christian counterparts, eventually united into societies, religiously intermixed at times, developing their own subculture. This class became a source of manpower and information to the bands of thieves which were rampant at that time. The authorities treated these groups of Jewish mendicants very harshly. They condemned them for thievery and for causing diseases and plagues in various places. As a result of these accusations, local authorities sought to banish the beggars. The Jewish communities were very ambivalent vis-à-vis these mendicants. On the one hand, they strove to obey the local powers-that-be, for they also saw in the beggars a social danger, not only because of their associations with thieves, but also because of their licentiousness. Yet, on the other hand, they not infrequently had feelings of compassion and brotherliness toward these unfortunates. The manner in which the communities handled these orḥei porḥei, therefore, corresponded to their ambivalence toward them. In general, the community accommodated them in the homes of its residents for one night (for two nights over the Sabbath), and afterward sent them along with a sum of money for travel expenditures. Special lodgings for mendicants, particularly for the sick among them, were also set up in the hekdesh ("poor house"). After the Emancipation, with residence restrictions for Jews lifted, and areas in which Jews were permitted to work widened, this impoverished class was largely integrated with other social classes. However, the phenomenon itself did not disappear from Jewish communal life, and it continued to exist especially in Eastern Europe, if not to the same extent.
I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (19322), 331ff., 346f.; Baron, Community, 1 (1942), 131f., 363; 2 (1942), 321–5; Urbach, in: Zion, 16, nos. 3–4 (1951), 1–27; R. Glanz, Geschichte des niederen juedischen Volks in Deutschland (1968); Scheiber, in: M. Zohary and A. Tartakower (eds.), Hagut Ivrit be-Eiropah (1969), 268–75.
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