the Fifth Week of Lent
Begging and Beggars
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Although it has made ample provision for the relief of the poor, the Mosaic legislation does not contain any prescription with regard to beggars; nor has the Biblical Hebrew a specific term for professional beggary, the nearest expression being "to ask [or seek] bread" and "to wander" (see below). Wherever the Bible commends charity, or even "gifts" to the needy (Esther 9:22), it does not mean such as are urged by an intruding or supplicating mendicant, but such charitable deeds as are practised spontaneously by the giver—whenever there is a need for them. Thus the Bible praises a worthy woman with the words: "She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy" (Proverbs 31:20; compare Deuteronomy 15:7; Isaiah 58:7).
Unknown to the Bible.
This omission of all care for beggars wandering from door to door is not without reason, but lies in the very nature of the Mosaic law. The distribution of the Holy Land among all the children of Israel in equal parts corresponding to the number of the members of each family; the manifold provisions for the relief of families or individuals impoverished by misfortune or disease; the strict prohibition of every kind of usury; the cancellation of all debts in the sabbatical year; the restoration of all the destitute landowners to their former estate at the recurrence of the jubilee year; and, finally, the provision that a poor Hebrew who sold himself to his wealthier brother should serve him until the jubilee only, without becoming deprived of his citizenship, and that his master was forbidden to treat him as a slave (Leviticus 25:39 et seq.)—all these laws, as far as actually practised, must have rendered the existence of beggars quite impossible.
In somewhat later times, however, with the development of larger cities, begging seems to have been known to the Jews, either as occurring among them or among neighboring nations. This may be inferred from Psalms 109:10, where the children of the wicked are cursed with beggary in contradistinction to the children of the righteous, who will never have to seek bread (Psalms 37:25; for the Hebrew expression corresponding to "begging," compare Psalms 59:16 and 109:10).
In the Apocrypha and N. T.
The first clear denunciation of beggary and almstaking is found in Ecclus. (Sirach) 28-30, where the Hebrew word for "begging" (according to the edition of Cowley and Neubauer, Oxford, 1897) is as in Psalms 109:10 (compare Ecclus. [Sirach] 29:23 et seq.). Here, as well as in Tobit, and especially in the New Testament, where beggars are frequently mentioned (Mark 10:46; John 9:8; Acts 3:2,3), the word ἐλεημοσύνη has already assumed the specialized sense of alms given to begging poor (Tobit 4:7,11,16,17; 12:8-11; Ecclus. [Sirach] 3:14,30,33; 7:10-12; 16:14; 29:11-13; 31:11; Matthew 6:2-4; Luke 11:41; 12:33; Acts 9:36; 10:2,4,31; 24:17).
Women Did Not Beg.
The existence of house-to-house begging in Mishnaic and Talmudic times may be inferred from Peah 8:7; Shab. 1. 1, 151b; Meg. 15b (with this passage compare Targ. Esther 9:14); Ket. 13:3; B. B. 9a; and Sifre, Deut. 116. By these passages, however, it can not be decided with certainty whether there were only itinerant mendicants, or also resident beggars. The expression used in Peah 8:7, "'ani ha'ober mi-maḳom le-maḳom," probably alludes to the first class, while the other terms, "maḥazir 'al hapetaḥim" and the Aramaic "ahadore appitḥa" may include both classes. Women did not beg from house to house. The support of a needy woman was, therefore, thought preferable to that of a needy man (Hor. 3:7; Maimonides, "Yad," Mattenot 'Aniyim, 8:15; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 251, 8). Professional beggars were a despised class; and it was forbidden to support them from the general charity fund with more than small alms (B. B. 9a; see Rashi on the passage; Yoreh De'ah, 250, 3, and the annotations of Shabbethai Cohen, according to which private benefactors may also observe the same rule). But it was also forbidden to drive a beggar away without giving him any alms (B. B. c.; Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, c. 7:7). Non-Jewish beggars were also recommended for support with food and garments (Tosef., Giṭ.  4; Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, c., 7:7; Yoreh De'ah, 251, 1, gloss); but Jews were prohibited from receiving alms publicly from non-Jews, unless they were in danger of life (Sanh. 26b, see Rashi; Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, c. 8:9; Yoreh De'ah, 254, 1). Allusion is also made to a class of professional mendicants who feigned diseases or deformities in order to attract the sympathetic notice of passers-by. Such beggars were looked upon with contempt and aversion (Peah 8:9; Tosef., Peah, 4:14; Yer. Peah 7:21b; Ket. 68a). Among the Samaritans there were many professional beggars, and the Midrash (Lev. R. 5:8; Midr. Teh. ) describes in a very amusing way the methods of these Samaritan mendicants.
To what extent begging was practised among the Jews of post-Talmudic times up to the eleventh century, is a question which can not be decided with certainty, since Hebrew sources of this period of Jewish history are very scanty. Judging from the undoubted fact that one of the chief forms that Jewish charity assumed was to discountenance begging from door to door, it is almost certain that before the period of the ghetto, and especially in smaller towns, there were no Jewish beggars at all (Abrahams, "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," p. 309, Philadelphia, 1896).
The fact that the Jews formed distinct communities in the midst of contemptuously indifferent oractively hostile environments, caused them to draw closer to one another, and tended to soften and bridge over the differences of poverty and position. Hence in most Jewish communities before the thirteenth century, though the inroad of itinerant mendicants was a grievous burden on Jewish benevolence, the number of settled, resident beggars was very small (ib.).
This was changed with the beginning of the ghetto age, when Jews were restricted to certain streets or quarters. Within the ghetto the Jews formed one large family, and house-to-house begging was carried on without publicity. Thus the system received a new impetus in the ghetto centuries, and reestablished itself in Jewish life. But the begging was restricted to Fridays and the middle days of festivals (Vogelstein-Rieger, "Gesch. der Juden in Rom," 2:315). Begging in the streets of the ghetto or in front of the synagogue was, however, sternly forbidden (Berliner, "Gesch. der Juden in Rom," 2:2,56 et seq.). The system of house-to-house begging was occasionally favored by wealthier Jews, but the ordinary middle class were opposed to it; and their view carried the day (Yoreh. De'ah, 250, 5).
Seventeenth Century Onward.
In the seventeenth century the system was revived; and especially on Fridays and on the eves of festivals the Jewish poor went about from house to house gathering alms. In modern Jewish life this system became a full-grown abuse; and irrepressible crowds of pushing beggars assembled about the synagogue doors (Abrahams, c., p. 310). To-day the Jewish beggar, the so-called "schnorrer," is a persistent and troublesome figure in modern Jewish society.
As another kind of begging must be regarded the collections made for the Jewish settlers in Palestine. See also Alms, Charity, Ḥaluḳḳah, RUSSIA, and SCHNORRER.
- Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Mattanot 'Aniyim;
- Ṭur, Yoreh, De'ah;
- Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, Ẓedaḳah;
- F. D. Michaelis, Mosaisches Recht, § 142;
- Jos. L. Saalschütz, Archäologie der Hebräer, ch. , , Königsberg, 1855-56;
- Hamburger, Realencyklopädie, , under Almosen, Arme, Armenfürsorge;
- Riehm, Handwörterbuch zu den Büchern des A. T., s. Almosen;
- Hastings, Dict. Bible, and Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Biblica, under Alms;
- Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, ch. , , Philadelphia, 1896.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Begging and Beggars'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​b/begging-and-beggars.html. 1901.