A lesson from the Talmud




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Comforting the Poor

By Nachum Mohl

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Yitzhak says that one who gives a prutah (a small coin) to a poor person is blessed with six blessings but one who consoles a poor person is blessed with eleven blessings. (Baba Batra 9b) Rabbi Yitzhak brings verses to support his statement.

It may seem at first glance from the statement of Rabbi Yitzhak that when a poor person comes to you for help it is a greater mitzvah to console him than it is to give him charity since Rabbi Yitzhak says openly that one who consoles a poor person is blessed with eleven blessings, whereas one who merely gives charity to the poor receives only six blessings.

The famed commentary, Tosphos, on the page comments that one should not think that Rabbi Yitzhak is talking about a person who only gives charity compared to a person who gives charity together with words of comfort. That is not so, it is simply comparing one who gives charity to one who only offers words of comfort and consolation.

This is perplexing, for if it were so, we should greet every poor person who comes to us and try to comfort him in his poverty. Why bother to give him money when the big mitzvah is by consoling him?

But rather the truth is found in the words of the Marasha. The Marasha lived about four hundred years ago and was very sharp. Marasha is really an acronym for his name Morenu (our teacher) Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer. He explains that Rabbi Yitzhak is comparing a person who has no money to give a poor person and therefore he can only placate him with words in comparison to a person who has money and gives it to the poor without comforting the poor person. But in a case when the man has money and instead tries to placate the poor person, he is committing a transgression of withholding financial support from the poor. Therefore the Marasha concludes that it is only when one has no money to give can comforting a poor person only enter into consideration.

What we learn from this is that a poor person suffers from two aspects: one is from poverty, i.e. he is hungry and has no money to buy food, and the second is his mental attitude; i.e. he worries about tomorrow, he is insecure, etc. Our prime obligation is to offset his physical deprivation, his hunger, which is a pressing physical reality and it is to this which we must attend. If we have the means to help alleviate his suffering and we don't extend our help then we are transgressing. The second aspect is to help him in his inner emotional despair. If we have the ability to do this then we should extend this type of help. But do not think that the mental help is preferable to the physical help and that it could be substituted for it.

The Marahsa says that this is likened to a person who can do a mitzvah either with his body or with his money. The rule is that one who does a mitzvah with his body is greater than one who does it with his money since he must use his bodily strength. Therefore he concludes that this is the reason that he is rewarded with a greater blessing. The reason that he is blessed with eleven blessings for comforting the poor is not that the mitzvah of comforting a poor person is greater, but because it is harder and requires more exertion. Because the exertion is greater so also the reward is greater.

Looking from the side of the poor person, however, the benefit of receiving money is greater than the words of consolation. So to figure which mitzvah is greater in heaven is totally a different accounting; one must weigh the physical efforts expended by the doer as opposed to the benefit received by the poor man. This is obviously not a chore that a mortal can tally up.

But the message that Rabbi Yitzhak brings us is clear, we must help the poor, both in the physical and in the emotional realms as in accordance with the blessing that G-d has given us.

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from the July 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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