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  • Sarit Kattan Gribetz

Philanthropy in Ancient Judaism and Why it Matters Today

Sarit Kattan Gribetz on Gregg Gardner's Wealth, Poverty, and Charity in Jewish Antiquity

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson use the metaphor “time is money” as one of their primary example of a conceptual metaphor (e.g., “How do you spend your time these days?”). A similar conceptual metaphor appears in Roman sources, including in the writings of the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, who begins his treatise On the Shortness of Life by comparing someone who complains about life being too short to a person who wastes their fortune on unnecessary luxury. Rabbinic logics of money and time are similarly intertwined in ways that betray their embeddedness in these Roman conceptual frameworks – which imagine both time and money as commodities that can be spent well or wasted – even as they also forge their own path in this Roman world.


Gregg Gardner’s Wealth, Poverty, and Charity in Jewish Antiquity examines the centrality of wealth in the ancient conceptions of poverty and charity, focusing on these interconnected topics in the early rabbinic corpus and the history of ancient Judaism more broadly. Gardner reframes rabbinic attitudes towards poverty and charity by arguing that early rabbinic sources conceive of charity primarily through a lens of wealth – that is, from the perspective of well-to-do givers – rather than from the vantage point of poverty or the point of view of the impoverished. Recognizing the importance of discourses and material realities of wealth shifts how we understand early rabbinic conceptions of charity and poverty. This perspective also illuminates discourses of poverty and charity today, as they are so often developed and filtered through the lens of wealthy donors and philanthropists rather than their beneficiaries.


Gardner identifies wealth as the central axis around which early rabbinic sources about poverty and charity revolve. In doing so, the book engages a robust ongoing conversation in the fields of New Testament, early Christianity, and rabbinic literature about poverty, disability, philanthropy, charity, giving and gifting, money, and the ancient economy in work by Yael Wilfand, Alyssa Gray, Michael Satlow, Krista Dalton, Shulamit Shinnar, and Amit Gvaryahu, among many others, including Gardner’s previous publications. Gardner’s foregrounding of the topic of wealth draws in particular on Peter Brown’s insights regarding the role of wealth and philanthropy in early Christian history, developed in publications including Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (2012) and Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (2001). The Roman context, in which agriculture, land, commerce, and the use of money constituted important parts of daily life and the practical and conceptual world which the rabbis inhabited and in which they participated, informs Gardner’s close reading of rabbinic texts. The study as a whole also proves that the examination of wealth illuminates aspects of the authorship, audience, and cultural and institutional contexts of the early rabbinic corpus, as well as dimensions of rabbinic social history, about which the texts themselves are surprisingly sparing.




Gardner argues that early (tannaitic) rabbinic sources in general, and tannaitic laws of charity in particular, betray the fact that the primary authors and audience members of these texts were relatively well off. While not all of them were necessarily extremely wealthy, most or all were also not impoverished. Their economic status ranged from town-dwelling, landowning rabbis – including the well-endowed Rabban Gamaliel, a slave-holder known for his lavish lifestyle, and Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Zadok, who purchased a synagogue – to craftsmen and merchants who were not necessarily wealthy but who nonetheless lived above subsistence levels. These rabbis constituted a middle class, and thus did not need to worry about going hungry. As Gardner points out, Ben Zoma’s famous dictum – “who is rich? He who is happy with what he has” – was likely a phrase articulated by someone who had sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and heat not to be starving and shivering in the midst of a Galilean winter. The tannaitic class, in short, consisted of both landowners who profited from the land’s produce and thus needed to figure out how to hire and pay their workers, sell produce at market, and manage properties, and those who possessed a craft or commerce expertise, who earned money through skilled labor or trade and likely handled money on a regular basis. The sources produced by these rabbis thus privilege land above other forms of payment and focus on the rights of buyers, sellers, and leasers.


The socio-economic level of the early rabbis is important as well for understanding how they defined poverty. They did so, Gardner contends, in “strictly material and economic terms, defining poverty as simply a lack of wealth.” Poverty was determined based on the level of one’s moveable assets: someone was poor when they had less than 200 denars to their name, the minimum income needed to cover a year of necessities. Certain exceptions are enumerated: for example, if a person owns only 50 denars but buys and sells with them, they are ineligible to receive harvest allocations. Based on these guidelines, a person was deemed eligible or ineligible for the benefits of gleanings (leqet), forgotten produce (shichecha), accessing the corner of fields left for the poor (peah), and the poor tithe (ma’aser oni) for the remainder of that year. Poverty, in this sense, is conceived as a technical, material, and even legal condition, used to determine eligibility for charitable services, similar to minimum income and asset levels used to determine eligibility for Medicare and Medicaid and other social services in the United States today.


The authors of these early rabbinic sources did not consider themselves among the people who qualified for such benefits. Instead, they wrote about and for the “benefactors rather than the beneficiaries.” They tried to determine to whom to give charity rather than whether they themselves qualified. And they addressed rules regarding harvest allocations for the poor – practices anchored in biblical verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy in which a corner of one’s field, gleanings that drop to the ground, produce overlooked during reaping, and so on were allocated to those who own or are responsible for the fields rather than to the needy individual who collected these allocations. These early rabbinic sources “approached poverty relief principally through a set of questions about wealth – who holds property rights over desirable assets, and how and when can wealth be transferred.” This situation changes, Gardner argues, in later (amoraic) rabbinic sources, when rabbis represented a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds and when more of them would have qualified as poor.


Rabbinic sources do not, however, necessarily favor landowners, nor do they present harvest allocations for the poor in terms of altruistic giving. In contrast to other forms of charity enumerated in tannaitic sources, such as the kuppa (charity fund), tamhui (soup kitchen) and direct almsgiving, which transfer resources from well-to-do people to the poor, these practices are not presented as charity at all. Tannaitic sources portray such allocations as gifts from God, who allocates portions of each season’s produce to both the poor and the householder, rather than as gifts from the wealthy. Landowners are instructed to refrain from harvesting or picking up dropped produce in order to ensure that householders stand out of the way so that the poor can take the share given to them by God.


In this system, the householder lacks agency. He cannot distribute the produce, nor choose which poor individuals will collect the produce, because the produce does not belong to him (and thus taking it would rob the poor of what is rightfully theirs). Gardner thus identifies such harvest allocations as a form of justice rather than charity. They are not strictly social or distributive justice, but rather procedural justice, which, in John Rawls’s words, is constituted by “a correct or fair procedure such that the outcome is likewise correct or fair, whatever it is, provided that the procedure has been properly followed,” or in Gardner’s words, “the result is fair simply because the process is understood to be fair.”


Gardner’s first book, The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2015), focused on the soup kitchen (tamhui), which aimed to provide immediate sustenance for everyone, including the itinerant poor, and the charity fund (kuppa), which focused on the long-term care of permanent residents of the town in which the fund was set up. In that book, Gardner argues that early rabbis preferred organized charity to individual direct almsgiving. They nonetheless acknowledged “door-to-door begging as a fact of life,” and thus articulated guidelines for this form of giving, too. Garder contends in the present book further that, regarding these types of giving, the early rabbis defined charity (tsedaqah) as “the provision of mammon (material wealth) for the living poor,” which entailed transferring wealth to living people. Charity in this sense contrasts to yet other forms of giving, such as gemilut chasadim, which included burying the dead, and philanthropy to support rabbinic Torah study, which develop in the amoraic period. Here, again, Gardner points out that the ideas of charity and poverty are both filtered through the conceptual framework of wealth, and in particular, money and moveable assets.

Gregg Gardner, Wealth, Poverty, and Charity in Jewish Antiquity. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. Pp. 301. $71 (hardcover)


The rabbis lived in a material and monetized world in which “money was interwoven into the fabric of daily life.” Their conception of charity reflects their embeddedness in it. They regarded money as a commodity and a means of exchange in which a standard scale was helpful. They appreciated the portability of money, “understood that money can function as a store of wealth,” and “viewed it as a hybrid of commodity and fiat – shifting their understanding based on whether a coin’s value had been significantly devalued.”


Gardner ultimately suggests that tannaitic sources regard wealth in value-neutral terms: it is neither good nor bad to be rich or poor, neither praiseworthy nor embarrassing to have or lack means. What matters is how one uses one’s wealth or leverages one’s poverty, including that one only accepts charity when one is eligible and truly in need. Gardner writes that “Defining charity as the promise of mammon exemplifies how rabbinic laws reflect the perspective of those who have wealth to spare.”


As Gardner draws out further, early rabbinic sources conceptualized charity through metaphors of pay, recompense, and reward as well as investment. On the one hand, giving charity guarantees pay, reward or recompense from God; on the other hand, charity represents a good investment in one’s eternal fortune. Both of these conceptual metaphors cast the act and institution of charity within economic frameworks, rather than employing altruistic terms. Doing so, Gardner insists, does not diminish the value of charity, but rather appeals to the giver through channels of self-interest. Giving charity makes sense – it is a sound strategy – because the reward is great and the investment worthwhile. Gardner explores how these conceptual metaphors within rabbinic sources resonate and also differ from those found in early Christian sources, including passages from the New Testament, Clement of Alexandria, the Shepherd of Hermas, Lactantius, Aphrahat, John Chrysostom, and Augustine. The book demonstrates various ways in which wealth is an essential key for understanding the logics of rabbinic laws, practices, and conceptions of poverty and charity. The book concludes by looking ahead to later rabbinic periods when the circumstances of rabbinic wealth change and notions of what counts as poverty and charity expand.



The opening lines of Gardner’s book describe the Tomb of the Kings, or Helena’s Mausoleum. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, this monument was built by the first-century Queen Helena to house the remains of the House of Adiabene in Jerusalem. Helena and her family were well-known in the first centuries CE for their practices of charity; their charitable legacy is discussed in the rabbinic corpus and in other contemporaneous sources. Gardner notes that “the allocations for the poor, notably, focus on men,” as the Tannaim view “the poor” as constituted by adult males, in contrast to the Hebrew Bible which thought that “the poor” includes widows and orphans (Gardner notes that one of the distinctions between the tannaitic and amoraic corpora is that in the latter orphans and widows are once again added to the category of the poor). While, according to Gardner, “the poor” are gendered as male in early rabbinic sources, benefactors were not necessarily always portrayed as men; they sometimes included wealthy women. Gardner’s work encourages further exploration about how gender, illness, disability, and other dimensions impact constructions of wealth and poverty, charity and care, and giver and recipient in rabbinic sources, with the potential to further illuminate how we understand the material and monetary world of the rabbis.




Time likewise plays an important role in rabbinic discussions of wealth and poverty, as it did in Roman sources and as it continues to do in contemporary discourse. Eligibility for harvest allotments is determined based on an individual’s assets at the start of the harvest and not thereafter, and the status applies for the duration of that year. The laws of harvest allocations only apply at certain times: once the harvest has begun and the householder has started reaping the fields. The householder designates particular times of day when “the fields are open and accessible for the poor to collect the produce themselves.” Allocations to the poor are “made simultaneously with God’s allocation of property rights over the majority of the harvest to the householder,” such that no time lapses between when a householder and the poor receive their allotments.


Employers are bound by very specific rules about when they need to pay their laborers – by the hour, day, week, or month. Similarly, God pays recompense (sakhar) to those who give charity at the proper time, both in this world (during a person’s lifetime) and the next world (after they have died). Employers face repercussions if they delay their payments. Gardner writes: “Seeing the rabbis’ choice of language (sakhar) as intentional and considering both its customary and divine uses together helps us uncover new attributes of rabbinic thinking on this topic, such as the vital role of time. Like the earthly, human employer, God pays sakhar at the completion of the contracted term of employment. One has one’s lifetime in which to fulfill as many commandments as possible. Thus, the contracted term ends with death, when it becomes impossible to perform any more commandments for God. Payment, therefore, is made after death – either to one’s descendants or in the afterlife…” In a story in the Tosefta, Monobaz, Queen Helena’s son, responds to his brothers’ criticisms that he has wasted their family fortune by feeding the poor during times of famine by assuring them that he is merely storing treasure in heaven, in “the world to come” (olam haba). This spatial and temporal metaphor imagines an alternative storehouse of treasures that accumulates assets in a realm that is at once deferred and removed. Moreover, even though “poverty persists even in normal times,” rabbinic sources acknowledge that times of famine necessitate greater acts of charity because the need is greater in those periods (some texts term these periods “time of distress”).


Gardner emphasizes that tannaitic rabbis were not poor; they had time to study Torah. As a social class, they are defined as people who use their time in particular ways – ways that are inaccessible to the poor, who must devote their time to other forms of labor. Juxtaposing physical labor and Torah study, as some rabbinic passages do, “demonstrat[es] a keen sense of time as a finite or scarce resource. Only those who receive sustenance do not have to invest time working in the fields or vineyards.” Nonetheless, the time of the wealthy or non-poor was also complicated, because they lived with a persistent fear that they might lose their possessions and become poor. Such fear of loss is implicitly expressed in tannaitic sources as well as through tannaitic institutions of charity and harvest allocations. Those already poor, in contrast, are imagined as not needing to worry about “devot[ing] time and resources” to acquiring possessions out of fear of not having enough, because they already lack means.




Recent years have been filled with news about growing wealth inequality, fears of economic recession, the resurgence of labor organizing, the wide-ranging effects of poverty, and conversations about social services, charity, and philanthropy. Studying how ancient sources conceive and legislate wealth, poverty, and charity highlights the extent to which ancient history informs how we imagine these concepts today. Notions of wealth, poverty, and charity – including judgments about wealth and poverty, ideas about distributive and restorative justice, and motivations for giving or receiving charity – are, on the one hand, culturally conditioned and historically situated (and thus quite different in antiquity and today), and, on the other hand, part of multi-generational traditions that simultaneously persist and evolve. Ancient conceptualizations inform contemporary discourses even as they can differ substantially from them.


Gardner’s extensive study of wealth, poverty, and charity in rabbinic sources sheds light on many dimensions of the rabbinic corpus, including social and conceptual topics ranging from the identity and economic status of the tannaitic rabbis to the ways in which they imagined their relationship to others, their access to land and money, their use of time, and what the future – in this world and the next – might have in store for those who abided by their rules and norms, including those that mandated harvest allocations for the needy and charity for the impoverished.


Sarit Kattan Gribetz is Associate Professor of Classical Judaism in the Theology Department at Fordham University and co-director of Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies. Her book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism (Princeton University Press, 2020), received a National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship and a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award from the Association for Jewish Studies.



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