Tzedaka and Sedom

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat VAYERA




Tzedaka and Sedom

Adapted by Gabi Spiewak and Aryeh Dienstag



            Towards the beginning of Parashat Vayera, as God contemplates destroying Sedom and its neighboring cities, He decides to inform Avraham (Bereishit 18:19):


For I have known him, that he will command his children and his house after him, and they will observe the way of God, to perform righteousness (tzedaka) and justice (mishpat). 


The Rambam (Hilkhot De'ot 1:7) splits the two phrases of this verse: he interprets observing "the way of God" to refer to the golden mean, and he disconnects it from the second charge, which is "to perform righteousness and justice."  However, one can suggest that the descendants of Avraham are marked precisely by their execution of "the way of God" in the spirit of "tzedaka and mishpat."  According to this line of thinking, the traits of righteousness and justice are critical if one is to follow the "way of God," and are integral to the makeup of the Jewish nation.


            In contrast, Sedom is infamous for its lack of tzedaka, as Yechezkel notes (16:49-50):


Behold, this was the sin of your sister Sedom: she and her daughters were proud, sated with food, complacent in their prosperity; they gave no help to the poor and needy.  Rather, they became haughty and committed abominations in My presence; then, as you have seen, I removed them. 


            Similarly, the gemara in Sanhedrin (109a-b) describes the hostile treatment the people of Sedom gave to the poor.  This deficiency applied as well to their mishpat.  The abovementioned gemara describes a law in Sedom obligating those with less property to watch over the city more than their richer neighbors.  In this way, they took advantage of those in dire financial straits. 


Still, we must ask: what were the people of Sedom obligated to do?  The Tosefta (Avoda Zara 4:8) lists "dinin" (laws) as the first of the seven commandments binding upon all humanity as descendants of Noach.  Although the Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:14) requires Noachides only to set up a fair legal system, the Ramban (Bereishit 34:13) actually requires non-Jews to keep all the areas of civil law mentioned in Choshen Mishpat, which Sedom certainly had failed to do.  Moreover, the Ran, in his commentary to the Gemara discussing the Noachide commandments (Sanhedrin 56a ff.), claims that Noachides are obligated to give charity to the poor.  He contends that the short list of seven commandments only constitutes the prohibitions; however, there are positive commandments in which they are obligated as well (see Sanhedrin 58b-59a). 


For the moment, we will leave out the technical question of why Sedom was punished; regardless, there is a considerable obligation that Sedom certainly neglected.  Yeshayahu defines the purpose of the universe as follows: "He did not create it for emptiness; He fashioned it to be inhabited" (45:18).  Mishna Gittin 4:5 and other sources give this charge halakhic force.  Therefore, even if an individual would not be obligated by the commandment of tzedaka, a civilization would have to be bound by such a mitzva, because it is inconceivable for a society as a whole to abandon the poor and be indifferent to those in need.


Thus, at the instant God is destroying the society of Sedom for their dereliction in the performance of righteousness and justice, he commands the children of Avraham to stand as a model of the type of society which follows in "the way of God," which must be one of tzedaka and mishpat.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Vayera 5766 [2005].)