Tzedakah and Fundraising: A Nineteenth-Century Response

By Ellenson, David | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Tzedakah and Fundraising: A Nineteenth-Century Response


Ellenson, David, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


The advent of the modern world in western and central Europe presented serious challenges to traditional Jewish patterns of communal structure and practice. With the rise of the modern nation-state during the nineteenth century, the traditional political parameters of the semi-autonomous medieval Jewish community collapsed. Jews became enfranchised as private citizens of their country of residence and the Jewish community itself increasingly came to be organized along the lines of a voluntaristic association. The modern community - unlike the medieval one - frequently and sometimes completely lost the right to tax its members for the support of social welfare and other needs. Nevertheless, social and other needs remained great.

Modes of fundraising for the support of charitable and civic projects had to be initiated which would take account of a modern venue in which the corporate-legal structure of the medieval Jewish world had been dismantled. At the same time, these modes had to be consistent with the ancient spirit of Jewish teachings on the subject of tzedakah if they were to be deemed authentically Jewish. How to raise funds effectively and efficiently for worthy communal causes in a manner consonant with Jewish tradition in the modern setting became a vexing issue that came to confront virtually every Jewish community in the western world during the 1800s. The dilemma of how to do this remains an acute one to the present day.

The responsum presented in English translation below represents the attempt made by one central European Jewish legal authority - Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) - to respond to the challenges posed by this ongoing issue in Jewish religious ethics in an equitable and sensitive way. Rabbi Hildesheimer was destined in 1873 to become the founder of the Orthodox Rabbiner-Seminar in Berlin. In 1867, at the time he wrote this responsum, he lived in Eisenstadt, Hungary, where he served as head of that country's second largest yeshiva. His decision transformed earlier practice and defined habits that continue in our own time.

The individual who posed the question on this matter concerning the ethics of fundraising to Rabbi Hildesheimer was Rabbi Eleasar Ottensosser (1798-1878). In 1845, Rabbi Ottensosser had established a small school for the teaching of Talmud in Hoechburg, Bavaria. Ultimately, the Hoechburg school came to prepare its graduates for admission to the Orthodox teachers' seminary which Rabbi Seligman Baer Bamberger (1807-1878) had established in Wuerzburg in 1864.

Rabbi Ottensosser, as the responsum indicates, was greatly disturbed by the fact that the Israelit, a leading German-language Orthodox periodical of the 1860s in central Europe, had published the names of donors and the amounts those donors had contributed to a charitable project in the pages of the periodical. As the translation of his question reveals, he was adamantly opposed to this practice and felt it violated Jewish law on several scores. In adopting this stance, Rabbi Ottensosser stood on solid Jewish legal foundations. After all, as he pointed out, there existed a plethora of classical rabbinic teachings which asserted that charitable funds ought ideally to be donated anonymously. Indeed, so concerned was the Talmud with preserving the dignity of the recipient of charity that it stated that when Rabbi Yannai saw someone give alms to a poor man in public, he said, "It would have been better not to have given [to] him, rather than to have given [to] him publicly and shamed him" (Hagigah 5a). The need to preserve anonymity in the donation of charity on the part of both the donor and the recipient was further embodied in Baba Batra 9b-10a, where the rabbis asked, "What kind of charity is that which delivers a man from an unnatural death?" The response, in the words of the text, stated, "When a man gives without knowing to whom he gives, and the beggar receives without knowing from whom he receives. …

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