Frontiers

A Time to Give

Religious Studies graduate student Jonathan Seif looks at changing ideas of charity in medieval Europe.
December 2012

It’s a time of year when many people are thinking about giving—and, necessarily, about the best ways and places for them to give. But questions like this are not just a modern concern: Religions through the centuries have encouraged charity, and at the same time struggled with how best to care for the poor. In medieval Europe, the philosophies and practices of charity for both Jews and Christians encountered new challenges, created by changes in the feudal system in the 12th and 13th centuries. “There was intense population growth,” says Religious Studies graduate student Jonathan Seif. “Cities took shape.  A commercial economy emerged, with new groups like traders and entrepreneurs, and new hierarchies within society. And those who were unskilled were uprooted and marginalized.”  

Seif is investigating how Christians and Jews in medieval Ashkenaz (an area including parts of today’s France and Germany) approached this mission. “Charity was now one of the paramount issues facing both the Jews and the Christians, and both traditions had to deal with the new landscape.” At the same time, large-scale ways of caring for the poor were taken on by the lay public for the first time. Hospitals, which then meant alms-houses, began opening in large numbers, along with homes for the aged and destitute and other centers for charitable activity.

In both the Jewish and the Christian world, thought was given as to how to be more discretionary in almsgiving, with the aim of donating to those who deserved it.  While Jews in Spain had a systematic method to determine how to give, Seif says, in Ashkenaz they instead relied more on God to do the discriminating: “They said ‘If we’re deserving in our own giving, then God will send us those who deserve to receive charity.’”

“In the medieval Christian world, the Franciscans exhibited the greatest distaste for property by disowning all of their possessions, but even in mainstream Christian circles you see a deep ambivalence toward property.” - Jonathan Seif

One of the most important 13th century Jewish scholars in Ashkenaz, Rabbi Isaac of Vienna, made charity the primary issue for the first time in his commentary on the Talmud, Sefer Or Zarua. “He is fascinating because he has distinct laws of charity that he starts this work with,” says Seif.  “He didn’t begin by talking about the Sabbath or kosher laws. The pressing issue he wanted to deal with, writing this great legal magnum opus, was charity.”

Both faiths expected members to be charitable and believed that charity would have a role in their judgment after death. Christians were asked to tithe—give 10 percent of their income to the church—as well as give alms, while Jews had the obligation to give both privately and communally. There were significant differences between the charitable laws of Jews and Christians, partly owing to a difference in the view of personal property, which Seif is also exploring. “In the medieval Christian world, the Franciscans exhibited the greatest distaste for property by disowning all of their possessions, but even in mainstream Christian circles you see a deep ambivalence toward property.” In contrast, in the Jewish tradition there was more comfort with personal property. “The view was that there was a religious obligation to give, but your property still belonged to you.”

Many of these questions are still struggled with today. “There’s a tremendous amount of influence even now from those medieval texts,” Seif says. “Whether it’s a religious practitioner of either faith, a philanthropist, or an average citizen, he or she considers values of how to prioritize giving, how much to give and where to give—all of these questions are deeply influenced by both the law and the spirit of the respective religious traditions.”