The term parnas is usually translated as the president or prince of the community. Indeed, the head of the mahamad in London is even called the parnas presidente. However, the term parnas actually means much more.
I’ve noticed that when some historians try to characterise the nature of the Spanish and Portuguese communities, they do so by talking about their wealth. They talk about the wealthy merchants, the barons like Moses Montefiore, and those who wielded influence. The truth however, was quite the opposite. Generally speaking, before modern times most people were poor. True, there were some wealthy individuals and families, however, most scraped by or lived off of communal funds. Indeed, the greatest expense of the community was the care for the poor, which could at times claim a third of the community’s expenses.
This then is the true meaning of parnas, which means to sustain. The parnasim of the community were those responsible for dividing and distributing the funds to the poor. This charity has always been at the heart of the community, much as it is at the heart of Judaism. Hillel once said that if one were to teach the entire Torah whilst standing on one leg, one should simply teach, veahavta lereacha kamokha, you shall love your neighbour as yourself. Charity is also the main concern of this week’s parashah, Behar. The portion addresses the seven year shemitta cycle. Different years required gifts to be given to different groups, including poor people, and the leviyim who lived off of communal funds, Maaser Ani and Maaser Levi. And of course on an annual basis one was required to leave a portion of their crops for those less fortunate. These are the laws of leket, shich’cha and peah. Finally, one is obligated to give interest free loans to one’s coreligionists.
The Torah’s charity laws were in the spirit of helping one another and in caring for one’s community. While, we are no longer farmers, we are of course still obligated to help those in need and to not turn away from the poor. However, the way we often do it today is through taxes and government welfare. Infrequent are the opportunities to personally engage in charity and to directly help those who are underprivileged.
The Talmud (Ketubot 67b) relates a story about the sage Mar Ukva. There was a poor man in his neighbourhood into whose door-socket Mar Ukva used to secretly throw four zuz every day. Once the poor man thought: ‘I will go and see who does me this kindness’. On that day it happened that Mar Ukva was late at the house of study, and his wife was coming home with him. They therefore went together to the poor man’s house. As soon as the poor man saw them moving the door, he went out after them to see who was there. They fled from him and ran into a furnace from which the fire had just been swept. Mar Ukva’s feet were burning, and his wife said to him: Raise your feet and put them on mine. Mar Ukva was upset. It seemed that he was less worthy than his wife since he did not receive the miracle that his feet did not burn. She said to him, ‘I am usually at home when the poor come, and my charity is direct.’
We live in a society where government institutions largely care for the poor in society. While we know that many fall between the cracks, we are largely isolated from the poor, often living in unofficially segregated communities, in sterilised environments. The result is that poverty and neediness is mostly hidden from us, and we rarely engage in charity on a personal level. This means that we miss out on one of the great results of direct charity, which is personal transformation and the softening of the heart.
This notion is a central theme in Mark Twain’s ‘The Prince and the Pauper.’ In the story the prince and the pauper boy are identical in appearance. One day when the prince is secretly out the castle they are confused with one anther. The pauper then lives as the prince of England, and the Prince lives as a pauper. While in the end the prince reclaims his position and ascends to the throne, by having been forced to live amongst the poor for a time, he is sensitised to the lives of those less fortunate around him.
A challenge of modern living is how can we cultivate that sense of tenderness and giving which only comes from personal contact with those less fortunate. Our parnasim princes no longer distribute funds directly, we tend to not live among paupers, and we are not farmers. We can, however, search out ways to care for others, whether it is through volunteering, sharing a kind word, sitting with someone needy at a kiddush, or rolling up our sleeves when needed. Indeed we must find ways to personally help others, lest we become callous.
When Moses Montefiore of Bevis Marks Synagogue visited Jerusalem in the 1800s he insisted on personally distributing charity to every poor person. They queued up outside his lodgings, and one by one he gave charity to them. He wrote that it was one of the most impactful experiences of his life. It was a true fulfilment of the verse (Leviticus 25:35) “And if your brother becomes poor, and his means fall with you; then you shall uphold him (whether a stranger or a resident) and so on account of you, he shall live.”