of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali

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A poor person travelling from place to place should not be given less than a one-pundyon loaf, at [the rate of] four se'ahs for one sela. If he spends the night he must be given sleepover necessities. If he spends Shabbat he must be given food for three meals. Anyone who has food for two meals must not take from the soup kitchen; [if he has] food for fourteen meals he must not take from the cash dole. The cash dole is collected by two and distributed by three.

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

The two mechanisms we refer to are termed tamĥui and kuppah. The kuppah was in order to provide cash assistance to the needy whereas the tamĥui was in order to provide them with ready-cooked food. For the sake of clarity we shall call the kuppah 'dole' and the tamĥui we shall call 'soup kitchen' (even though it was not an 'eatery' as such).

Our present mishnah does not legislate concerning these two institutions, but rather assumes their existence. So we must look elsewhere for details concerning the modus operandi of the 'dole' and the 'soup kitchen'. There is a baraita [Bava Batra 8b] which gives us information even though its main concern is slightly different:

The 'dole' is collected by two [officials] and distributed by three. It is collected by two because less than two people [working in tandem] may not impose authority over the public; it is distributed by three as in dinei mamonot,. The 'soup kitchen' is collected by three and [also] distributed by three, for its collection and distribution are equal. The 'soup kitchen' [operates] daily [but] the 'dole' is every Friday. The 'soup kitchen' is [available] for all poor people [whereas] the 'dole' is [intended only] for the local needy. But the councillors are entitled to treat the 'dole' as 'soup kitchen' and the 'soup kitchen' as dole and to make as many [such] alterations as they deem necessary.

Every Friday morning two officials appointed by the leaders of the community would go the rounds of all the households in the township or village and they would collect from them money for the 'dole' (or 'community chest' if you will). However, the monies received were not really a donation, because these two officials had the authority to make an assessment how much each householder was to give. This assessment would take into account not only the estimated income of the householder but also the depth of poverty that had to be addressed by the community that week. There was no appeal from this assessment and if the householder refused to co-operate these 'collectors' [gabbaïm] were entitled to confiscate suitable property from the house in question until such time as the communal debt was paid. This power of assessment and confiscation was conferred on two officials acting together: it was felt that one person exercising such power alone could be seen as communal tyranny. (The biblical 'peg' upon which the presence of two assessors was required was based on the fact that we are told [Exodus 28:5] that when the Israelites were required to donate money and articles for the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert "they shall take the gold" etc - and the minimum number for a plurality is two.

Later on Friday the money collected would be distributed to the poor and needy, so that they would have the wherewithal to provide for themselves for Shabbat. Since here a judgement would have to be made as to how much it would be possible (and needful) to give each applicant these monies were distributed by a panel of three. We recall from our study of Tractate Sanhedrin that a court that was empowered to try cases involving monetary claims consisted of three lay arbitrators.

Unlike the kuppah which operated on a weekly basis, the tamĥui ['soup kitchen'] operated on a daily basis. Each day the three gabbaïm of the tamĥui would visit each household and remove from there foodstuffs - usually straight from the cooking pot! Here, too, these collectors had power of assessment and confiscation; because the removal of food in this manner was a judicial matter three gabbaïm were required both to procure the tamĥui and to distribute it. The 'soup kitchen' was intended to serve any needy people who happened to be in town - bona fide travellers and the poor who had gravitated to that place. But the kuppah was intended only for the local residents. However, when the council that ran the affairs of the community saw a need they were entitled to reverse these roles and give the money to all applicants and the food only to local residents.

The term pundyon which appears in our mishnah refers to the Roman coin dupondium which was valued at two issars. When we take into account the relative values of the coins and weights of the period we find that the "one-pundyon loaf" that was the minimum food that was to be given to needy travellers was the equivalent of the "one half of one 'kav' of wheat" that was indicated in mishnah 5 of this chapter [pe'ah 080]. If this traveller was to spend the night he also had be be provided with bedding, and if he was to spend Shabbat in this place he was to be provided with the three meals that it is mandatory on every Jew to eat on Shabbat.

Towards the end of our mishnah an attempt is made to indicate a 'means test' that could be levelled against applicants: "anyone who has food for two meals must not take from the soup kitchen; if he has food for fourteen meals he must not take from the cash dole." These indications are expanded in the next mishnah.