The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism by Gregg Gardner focuses on the intersection of several fields of study—early rabbinic law, the sociology of power, and late antique history. Gardner’s central arguments—that organized charity in Judaism began after the destruction of the Second Temple and that, unlike later rabbis, the tannaim created charitable organizations in order to maintain the dignity of the poor—are the product of extensive study and the innovative use of sociological and economic theory.
Following Peter Brown’s book on Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, more scholars have begun to explore the issues of poverty and charitable giving in the Classical and post-Classical world.1 While many of these works have focused on poverty and charity in pagan or Christian settings, Gardner is among a small number of scholars looking at the issue in early rabbinic Judaism. The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism represents a welcome addition and correction to the field.
Early in the book, Gardner recognizes that the most widespread form of charity in antiquity must have been direct charity—that is, charity given by one individual directly to another individual. Gardner argues that rabbinic discomfort with the social diminution of receivers of direct charity (beggars) led the rabbis to create organized forms of charity that did not directly indebt any particular poor person to any particular donor. Anonymous donors gave to communal institutions, and the poor were provided for from communal resources, thus insuring the “dignity of the poor.” Unlike later periods, the charity of the tannaim was not aimed at supporting synagogues or rabbis but rather just the poor. The focus on tannaitic evidence is a particular strength of the book since it speaks to activities in the late second and early third centuries CE, a period that has not received as much attention from scholars focusing on Christian and pagan charity.2
Throughout the book, Gardner carefully explores the language of giving in order to distinguish between charity, on the one hand, and euergetism, religious patronage, and hospitality, on the other. Gardner frames early rabbinic practices within the context of Roman social norms, noting both their conformation to those norms and their divergences.
Roughly, the book is divided into two parts. The first, comprising chapters 1, 2, and 3, gives background, introduces the subject of rabbinic charity, and defines the parameters and terms of the study. Gardner strictly limits the sources under consideration to those most likely to have been composed by the tannaim—the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the tannaitic midrashim (the list of Gardner’s sources appears on pages 40-41). Gardner establishes a baseline for several important working terms, including his interpretation of the “poor” in rabbinic texts. According to Gardner, the rabbinic term, “the poor,” refers only to adult men— women, children, orphans, and the elderly are covered under other provisions within tannaitic frameworks for community maintenance (29-32).
Chapter 2 focuses on an important contribution of Gardner’s book—the distinction between biological and social understandings of the poor and poverty in Roman Palestine. Gardner explains that the rabbis created the tamhui, or soup kitchen, in order to alleviate biological poverty. The tamhui would provide enough calories for a person to stay alive. Gardner points out that poverty also has a social aspect. Gardner traces the early rabbis’ recognition of this kind of socially defined poverty and rabbinic efforts to help the impoverished individuals. These conjunctural poor received help from the rabbis by means of the quppa, or charity fund—an institution that, Gardner argues, was tasked with returning the conjunctural poor to their prior level of affluence, thus maintaining their dignity. The distinction between starving to death (biological poverty) and dealing with reduced means (social poverty) is a unique contribution from Gardner’s book and important to his overall reading of the rabbinic material.
Gardner goes on in chapter 3 to explore the mechanisms by which two physical objects, a tamhui (a large serving dish) and a quppa (a carry-all basket), changed meaning within the rabbinic corpus, shifting metonymically into social institutions for the disbursement of communal charity. Gardner also articulates the tannaitic vision of “the community,” one based on residency rather than birth.
The latter part of the book, encompassing chapters 4 through 8, focuses on the tannaitic articulation of organized charity, the communal institutions of the tamhui and the quppa, the means by which the rabbis collected and distributed charity, and the social ramifications of organized charity in the tannaitic and amoraic periods. In chapter 4, Gardner elaborates on the role of the tamhui as an institution to look after the biological needs of the poor, reviewing tannaitic instructions to provide regular alms of bread, legumes, and olive oil. In addition, the rabbis instructed that the poor eligible for the tamhui also receive extra food of greater variety on the Sabbath and at Passover, including fish and wine. Gardner points out that while the tamhui may have had its inspiration from Mediterranean customs of hospitality, in the end it was a separate and stronger institution.
Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the quppa as a more complex institution aimed at restoring the conjunctural poor to their prior social and economic situation. Gardner sketches a picture of the almost limitless charitable giving imagined by the rabbis to support the quppa. He highlights rabbinic discourse that instructs how impoverished individuals should be given whatever they need—clothing, money, food, a wife, slaves, horses—in order to return to their original, well-born status. This maximalist reading of tannaitic charity leads Gardner to challenge the historicity of the “Usha” ordinance that limited charitable giving to one-fifth of an individual’s annual income, attributing the ordinance to the amoraim (sages of the late third and fourth centuries) rather than the tannaim. In Chapter 6, Gardner finishes with a discussion of the tannaitic definition of community as something between the civic society of the Classical world and the communal discourses focused on “the poor” in Late Antiquity. In order to benefit from the quppa, Gardner argues, “[T]he quppa does not require ‘citizenship’ per se. … [O]ne’s affiliation with a town and its quppa is a matter of mere residence, without the political weight of citizenship” (149-50). This is an important articulation of the emergent idea of the rabbinic community, one distinct from earlier communal definitions based on geography and heritage.
Gardner highlights that the rabbis’ interest in helping the impoverished was partly self-interest—rabbis were themselves well off. If something unfortunate happened, the quppa existed to return members of the rabbinic movement to their former state while keeping their dignity intact.
Gardner goes on to argue in chapter 7 that the charity supervisors carefully collected and distributed charity in order that the receiver would not feel an obligation to anyone for what they received. The charitable collectors were modeled on Roman tax collectors, with the power to assess how much each member of the community should contribute. The distributors were modeled on Roman judges or magistrates, who had the power to investigate whether or not a specific individual’s claim of need was credible. One contribution of Gardner’s book is that while the tannaitic arrangement had the potential to put rabbinic collectors and distributors in a position of power and authority over the poor, the tannaim were rather at pains to avoid such a situation.
In chapter 8, Gardner concludes his book with an examination of the next generation of rabbinic writers, comparing the attitudes and writings of the amoraim to those of the tannaim. The amoraim placed greater emphasis than the tannaim on basic survival through the tamhui. Also, Gardner interprets the amoraic emphasis on the tamhui as a move away from tannaitic emphasis on dignity for the poor. During the amoraic period, Gardner argues, the amoraim used charitable giving as a way to enhance their social and economic power. This shift put the amoraim in line with common Christian practices of the period.
Methodologically, Gardner follows Jacob Neusner’s school for reading rabbinic literature. Gardner rejects the notion that rabbinic literature should be used to reconstruct practices from the Second Temple period (before 70 CE) and limits the historical insights from the rabbinic texts to the time and place in which they were redacted. For the tannaim, this means Palestine in the early third century CE. His approach allows him to distinguish the practices of the tannaim from the amoraim and to support his reading for the origin of organized charity in Judaism in the tannaitic period. Gardner cautions against synchronic studies of charity in his case, since it obscures the tannaim’s unique response to the problem of begging. Given the different social role that Gardner traces for the amoraim in their texts, reading the amoraic and tannaitic texts separately is central to Gardner’s project.
Some questions remain. Gardner argues that the tamhui and the quppa are institutions designed to deal with the primarily urban problem of begging. However, Shaye Cohen and Catherine Heszer have argued that the rabbis were predominantly a rural or village movement, less at home in large cities during the tannaitic period.3 At various points in the book, Gardner also discusses the impact of the rabbis on smaller communities—villages and towns rather than cities. If that is the case, why were beggars, a primarily urban phenomenon, a problem for the tannaim? Is Gardner assuming that the “urban” problems existed in the towns and villages as well? What relationship does Gardner see between the tannaim and cities? Much research would support the suggestion that Palestinian towns and villages behave very much like cities, but Gardner has not made the relationship clear.
Another question relates to the idealized picture painted by the tannaim of themselves and the prescriptive nature of their writings. Gardner admits that the tannaitic texts present us with what we can assume is the tannaim’s advice for best practices (24). However, we have no idea how well the rabbis or those influenced by their teaching upheld the philanthropic goals set forth in Gardner’s book. This issue is relatively minor and is a criticism that can be made of much of what we know about the ancient past, but it leads to a larger question for Gardner. If the tannaim were outlining what they thought they and their adherents should do, then is it not possible that the practices outlined by the amoraim (using charity as a means to support themselves and to create a network to enhance their social and economic prestige) reflect Jewish practices in the tannaitic period as well? That the amoraim were in fact just regularizing what had become common practices in their day? As always, we must be cautious about mistaking rabbinic ideals for day-to-day reality.
Overall, this is a delightfully engaging book on a worthy topic. It opens up new questions and is a valuable read for scholars in many areas of ancient history, particularly for those interested in the social and economic transformations that occurred in the cities of the Roman empire in the early centuries of the common era.
1. Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002); Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, editors, Poverty in the Roman World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
2. A notable exception is the Atkins and Osborne book, n.1.
3. Shaye J.D. Cohen, “The Rabbi in Second-Century Jewish Society,” 937; Catherine Hezser, The Social Structure of the Rabbinic Movement in Palestine (Tubingen: Mohr Siebek, 1997), 163.