Purim has passed, and with it the last yeshiva students knocking on our doors; yet, I can still hear the echoes of the familiar Purim song emanating from hoarse throats: “No less than a thousand, no less than a thousand…” And no less than a thousand thoughts reel through my mind as I recall the young children running after the older students with eyes agog, imitating the motion of sticking out their hands in the hope of (or demand for) a donation. These children grow up thinking this is normative, maybe even proper behavior, and they attempt it themselves with impressive charm on their grandfathers, uncles, and aunts, accompanied by an uncompromising demand for another worn-out penny…
Sticking out the hand, which began as an unpleasant necessity, has become a way of life. Our children are taught it from an early age, and in the interim, they internalize it as a legitimate and normal way to live.
If this phenomenon would take place over the two days of Purim alone, I would ignore it with amused indulgence. Concerning stretching out one’s hand on Purim it says, “All who stretch out their hand are given.” We do not investigate a person who asks for charity on Purim. Whether deserving or undeserving, everyone is given charity. Moreover, the yeshiva students’ visits on Purim are not merely a matter of “stretching out the hand.” It is a kind of mostly fair barter between the homeowner who welcomes these boys into his home for some live, contagious Purim joy and the boys who get him to open his pocket.
Furthermore, the prevailing custom is that on Purim, the doors are open and so is the heart. Together with the wine flowing in their veins, this weakens the natural shame mechanism that usually accompanies those begging at people’s doors (which is exactly what the yeshiva students collecting for their internal charity funds are doing).
However, over the years, this phenomenon has expanded beyond Purim and is spreading across the entire month of Adar. When the year possesses two Adars the shindig goes on even longer. In the past, students from the yeshivos gedolos took part in the festival. Lately, however, even students from yeshivos ketanos (high-school age) are being deployed to homes. I already wonder: can anyone guarantee that in coming years we won’t see cheder-age children knocking on the same doors?
Another thing to consider: the yearly shnorr campaigns have become strategically sophisticated and broader in scope. They have become a bewildering event for donors and collectors alike. Yeshiva students behave like the most brazen beggars standing at entrances of supermarkets, carrying on unpleasant conversations with family members in this enforced campaign, while the assaulted target is left with one choice alone: to contribute.
Besides the blithe days of Adar, yeshiva students in recent years have also started to get involved in big fundraising matching campaigns with impressive returns. And so, if one counts the countless campaigns of Vaad HaRabbonim, Kupat Ha’Ir, and neighborhood and national charity committees that fill our bulletin boards and mailboxes, Charedi society has turned into a “shnorr” society
Besides the blithe days of Adar, yeshiva students in recent years have also started to get involved in big fundraising matching campaigns with impressive returns. And so, if one counts the countless campaigns of Vaad HaRabbanim, Kupat Ha’Ir, and neighborhood and national charity committees that fill our bulletin boards and mailboxes, Charedi society has turned into a “shnorr” society. Stretching out the hand, which was once done reluctantly, has turned into a way of life. Our children are thus inculcated from an early age, and inevitably internalize that collecting alms is a legitimate and normative way of living.
It is important to also look at the positive aspects of the phenomenon. Harnessing boys to fundraising campaigns trains them in taking responsibility for the yeshiva’s economic life. It won’t hurt our youth, who are used to having the yeshiva cook for them and clean up after them, to demonstrate some responsibility, and understand that someone has to finance their physical existence. There is certainly something positive about the fact that an entire community takes part in the activity of chesed and giving. This turns us into a giving society and transforms our youths into facilitators of care and compassion. However, despite these advantages, I believe that the phenomenon’s damage is greater than its benefits. Beyond the inner discomfort I feel about the burgeoning “shnorr” movement, I am concerned that it is infusing us with negative character traits, the very opposite of what Torah education is all about.
What’s Wrong With “Shnorr”?
Let’s start from the beginning. In his well-known words about the purpose of the world’s creation, the Ramchal in his Da’as Tevunos writes:
In order that the giving of good be complete, Hashem knew in his sublime wisdom that it is appropriate that those who receive it [the good] receive it with the work of their hands, because then they will be masters of this good, and they will not have residual embarrassment in the receipt of the good, like one who receives charity from another. And upon this they said (Yerushalmi Orlah 1:3): “One who eats not from his own, is ashamed to look at his [benefactor’s] face” (Para. 18).
Ramchal thus explains that our Creator’s purpose in creating this world and giving us the Torah is to prevent us from feeling the shame of receiving something for free, without effort and exertion to attain it. By exerting ourselves to fulfill the mitzvos in This World, we will be rewarded in the Hereafter without the sensation of shame that accompanies free gifts. Ramchal’s underlying assumption, which he does not feel any need to prove, is that charity and free gifts are shameful things. There is no place to ask why a free gift is shameful, and why this assumption preceded even the creation of the world. All Ramchal emphasizes is that feeling shame for receiving free gifts is so basic and profound that it forms the foundation for human existence. The shame one feels upon receiving free gifts is not because of a natural tendency or even morality; it is existential.
It is true that Torah students are allowed to rely on public funds for their livelihood. However, this permit is not so simple. We must remember the extensive halachic polemic among gedolei Torah, who feared the great risk inherent in financial dependence.
Today’s Torah world, which also includes many thousands of married Kollel students, relies on donations and stipends for their subsistence. It is true that Torah students are allowed to rely on public funds for their livelihood. However, this permit is not so simple. We must remember the extensive halachic polemic among gedolei Torah, who feared the great risk inherent in financial dependence. Therefore, even if we rely on this permit, we must exercise some basic caution so that we don’t slide down a slippery slope by extending the permit to other areas of life.
The Rambam’s words in Hilchos Talmud Torah should stand before our eyes even if we do not rule practically according to it:
Anyone who concludes that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and should derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates Hashem’s name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the World to Come, for it is forbidden to derive [material] benefit from Torah study in This World.
Our Sages declared: “Whoever benefits [materially] from Torah study forfeits his life in the world.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Do not make them a crown to aggrandize oneself, nor an ax to chop with.” Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise Rabbinic positions.” All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be lost and will lead to sin. Such a person will end up stealing from others (Talmud Torah 3:10).
The ruling permitting the public to rely on public support for Torah study, is based, among other things, on the words of the Kesef Mishnah in his commentary on the Rambam. It is important to see his explanation:
We saw that all the Jewish sages before and after the Rambam’s time always took wages from the public. Even if we admit that the law according to the Mishnah is as the Rambam ruled, it is possible that all the sages of all generations acted differently because of the principle “It is a time to act for Hashem; they transgressed Your Torah.” If the Torah scholars and the teachers didn’t have sustenance, they wouldn’t be able to properly toil in Torah study, and the Torah would G-d forbid be forgotten. Once their livelihood was guaranteed, however, they can engage in Torah study, and magnify and glorify it.
The permit to charge a fee for teaching Torah stems from necessity, which was accepted in Jewish law due to the principle “It is a time to act for Hashem.” However, the Kesef Mishnah does not dispute Rambam’s claim regarding the risk involved in receiving donations from the public. Given the need, he rules that the matter is permitted; without a doubt, he would warn us against taking it too far.
Such a Person Will Ultimately Steal
Rambam’s critical words about those who study Torah at the expense of the public need to be explained. He writes: “Such a person will ultimately steal from others.” Is that true? Does he mean to say that a person who learns Torah and makes his living from it will turn into a highwayman? Based on our own experience, I think his words can be interpreted metaphorically: Such a person may lose his natural shame and feel that he is entitled to everything. Free gifts will no longer be “the bread of shame.” He may, heaven forfend, become a person who demands gifts, who feels that other’s property really belongs (or should belong) to him, thus approaching “such a person will end up stealing from others.” The loss of the value of earning money by one’s own efforts underpins a thief’s behavior. Thieves do not respect a person’s right to belongings that he lawfully acquired through his own efforts.
Are we inadvertently approaching this dangerous boundary line that Maimonides describes with prophetic wisdom? Have we almost forgotten that living at the public’s expense is wrong and was just narrowly allowed because “It is a time to act for Hashem?”
Are we inadvertently approaching this dangerous boundary line that Maimonides describes with prophetic wisdom? Have we almost forgotten that living at the public’s expense is wrong and was just narrowly allowed because “It is a time to act for Hashem?” Have we turned the bedieved (permitting something after the fact) into a lechatchila (permitted from the outset) while dangerously expanding the limited permission to benefit from other people’s money? There are worrying signs indeed.
The most significant expression of the shnorr culture and the feeling of entitlement is embodied in the practice of the best yeshiva students to “demand an apartment” from a potential father-in-law. In this case, the demand for Torah wages has become entirely compulsory. In his book “Rishon LeZion,” Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar, the author of the Ohr Hachaim, warns against this very danger. Referring to Rambam’s remarks mentioned above, he distinguishes between a Torah student whom the public supports out of their own free will, and a Torah student who approaches the public with an attitude of entitlement, as if they owe him something. He writes: “It is obvious that one who demands a reward for his Torah study is like one who is using up the reward saved for him in the Hereafter, as the Mishnah says: Whoever gets a personal benefit from Torah study, is using up the reward saved for him in the Hereafter.” (Rishon Lezion, Yoreh De’ah 246:8). While his discussion is limited to individuals, it seems that we are embodying his warning on a societal level.
It is worth mentioning seemingly minor behaviors characteristic of some (too many) yeshiva students. Their expectation that someone (Mom?) will pick up dirty laundry strewn in the corners of the room, provide food and drink and clean up after them, could be due to the fact that in yeshiva their every need is catered for. They are merely copying their yeshiva behavior to their homes. There is, of course, much to be said for home education in this context, but I believe that here, too, the shnorr culture confers a seal of lechatchila on this unfortunate habit. A yeshiva student “deserves” someone to clean up after him, just as he deserves that a homeowner should open his pocket and give him “no less than a thousand.” The shame of depending on others is disappearing. Receiving benefits from others becomes a right, a claim.
Another small yet striking expression of the lack of feeling “bread of shame” is the prevailing practice of yeshiva students stopping cars when hitchhiking at intersections. All too often, the driver will feel that instead of a polite request on the part of the yeshiva student, as appropriate for a society that believes in chesed, the situation becomes a brusque demand to give entry to a stranger who behaves as though if the car is his.
We must remind ourselves and our children of a principle that ordinarily should be taken for granted: that receiving free gifts is undignified, a condition that any normal person should do his maximum to avoid. Instead, we must cultivate the value of honest work, of toiling for one’s loaf of bread.
Recently, a polemic appeared in a neighborhood advertising bulletin surrounding the refusal of many young couples to give away their apartment on Shabbos for their neighbors’ use. It aroused the same discomfort. People’s reactions to the issue made it sound as though giving up the apartment to someone else is a social norm to be complied with rather than a special act of chesed. There was no indication that giving an apartment over to strangers without any remuneration, sometimes for the benefit of families with several children, is an act of extraordinary generosity. If such acts turn into entitlements, a chesed-based society loses its basic raison d’etre.
Children in every society naturally absorb the social codes of the environment in which they grow up. Will exposing children from a young age to people, not on the fringes of society but rather at its center, stretching out their hands for donations, who are not on the fringes of society, not shape them into dependent adults and reduce their ability to become self-sufficient?! This disturbing thought does not give me rest.
Precisely because we are a society that believes in kindness and high social responsibility, alongside valuing Torah students and being willing to support them, we have to hone the messages we want to impart to our young. These virtues oblige us to be especially aware of the great importance of being independent and responsible individuals.
We must remind ourselves and our children of a principle that ordinarily should be taken for granted: that receiving free gifts is undignified, a condition that any normal person should do his maximum to avoid. Instead, we must cultivate the value of honest work, of toiling for one’s loaf of bread (without detracting, of course, from the highest respect for those who dedicate themselves to Torah study) and reaffirm the sweetness of the laborer’s rest after he has reaped the fruits of his labor. We must carefully draw the thin line between legitimately asking for chesed and charity and “compelling” others to give.