Tuesday, November 13, 2007

About Time! Beggars Banned from Kotel Plaza

According to the Jerusalem Post ("Praying, yes - begging, no", the Jerusalem police are finally cracking down on this odious practice:
Praying, yes - but begging, no.

That's the state's decision after years of mounting complaints of aggressive - and often violent - behavior by scores of beggars at the Western Wall.

The long-delayed decision to enforce the ruling starting Thursday was taken after groups of beggars disregarded warnings from Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch over the last year not to harass visitors.

A year and a half ago, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz instructed Rabinovitch and police to act against the beggars in accordance with the law. The haredi rabbi first tried to persuade the charity-seekers to change their violent ways, assuring them that if they asked for money in a respectful fashion he would not distance them from the holy site.

His pleas fell on deaf ears, and organized groups of beggars continued to come from the central region and violently harass visitors.

"They really went overboard and became brutal," Rabinovitch said, adding that he had received thousands of complaints from visitors, some of whom were even deceived into paying admission to enter the site. "It pains me that we have come to this."

Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said police were helping to remove violent beggars. But many of the panhandlers vowed not to leave.

For years, it has been almost impossible to reach the Western Wall without being accosted by a platoon of beggars rattling change or dangling ribbons for sale.

Visitors have been physically assaulted for giving "too little," while a donation - especially a sizable one - to one beggar often results in a swarm of others eager to get their share.

On Thursday, the beggars had been distanced from the Wall itself, but were still stopping visitors in the adjacent plaza, with their calls for a dollar or a euro in exchange for a red ribbon or a skullcap.

The Jerusalem Municipality has said the beggars usually do not accept assistance offered by city social workers.
And you add this to the awesome teshuva given by my new favorite Gadol Ha-Dor, Rav Shlomo Aviner:
24 Marcheshvan 5768
Prepared by Rabbi Mordechai Friedfertig

Question: When I visit the Kotel, there are so many people asking for money, should I give money to the beggars? What about people on the street? What about people who knock on my door and ask for money?

A. Most Beggars are Swindlers

The Halachah is that we do not give money to beggars until we clarify that they are truly poor. This is a "Takanat Chazal" (Ruling of our Sages) since most beggars are swindlers. This ruling is found in the Gemara in Baba Batra (9a) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De'ah 251:10) and it applies to this day. Ninety percent of people who ask for money today are swindlers. If someone asks for money we do not give it until he provides verification from a reliable Rabbi. If someone asks for food, however, we give him immediately. What if he is being deceptive? It is a potentially life-threatening situation and we therefore provide food without delay. Today, most beggars in Israel do not ask for food because there are many soup kitchens, and if you offer them food, they say that they prefer money.

B. Is Giving Tzedakah to Someone who is not Poor a Mitzvah?

The halachic authorities discuss if one fulfills the mitzvah of giving tzedakah if the recipient is in fact not poor. They point to the Gemara in Baba Batra (8b) and explain that not only does one not fulfill the mitzvah, but he also loses out on the mitzvah to give that money to truly poor people. Perhaps you will say that giving tzedakah is still worthwhile even if the person is not poor since it strengthens one's personal character trats (tikkun midot), as the Rambam explains in his introduction to Pirkei Avot, that by performing an act over and over, one will achieve proper characteristic traits. This, however, does not occur when one is performing an act which is not beneficial. A person is cruel if he does not give to the poor, but he is not kind if he gives to the wealthy. We have to give to truly poor people. A person should not buckle under emotional pressure from a beggar: I have many children and a husband who is sick, you have a kippah but you are not really observant, you give a shekel and they throw it down, etc… If a person was poor before he asked for money at the Kotel, after a day he would no long be considered poor: They collect 1000 shekels a day!

C. Rabbinic Verification Even to provide rabbinic verification is problematic today.

Anyone can print a Rabbi's letter or signature off the internet in thirty seconds. One time some people from a tzedakah organization in Ashdod came and asked for my signature. I did not know them and asked if they had other Rabbis' signatures. They told me that they had the support of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I said: If so, I will blindly support it. Please send me the letter. When I received it, I saw that in the signature there was an extra "alef" in the last name "Schneersohn" and instead of being signed by the last Rebbe – Ha-Rav Menachem Mendel, it was signed by the previous Rebbe – Ha-Rav Yosef Yitzchak, who died almost sixty years ago! It was a forgery! Often times there are people who request money for yeshivot or organizations which do not exist, never existed and will never exist. One time I signed a letter in support of giving money to the poor. I found out that they were giving $1000 to anyone about to be drafted into "Nachal Ha-Charedi" (Ultra-Orthodox unit in the army) to convince them not to join. They claimed they were poor: They were in great spiritual poverty if they were about to join Tzahal. I called and requested my name be removed from the letter, but they did not. I called again, no response. I called again, no response. I sent a letter, no response. I sent a letter from a lawyer and they called: "Why not talk like a mensch? Come on, let's talk," etc… We have to be extremely careful about where we give our money.

In sum: We only give tzedakah to people who we can verify are poor or to trustworthy organizations. Give to one, two, three trustworthy organizations. It is not possible to provide for every poor person in any event. Most beggars are not evil people, they are mentally and emotionally unstable. We do not judge them, but we only give tzedakah to actual poor people.
I've been saying what Rav Aviner said for YEARS but have not been able to get a Gadol to back me up. Finally.

{2009 Update: Lego beggar pic from this fun site.}


Anonymous said...

Another form of begging that I feel uncomfortable with at the Kotel is done by small groups that appear to be nothing more than a rebbe with two or three of his followers. They target people after they have prayed at the Wall. They confer a blessing and then demand tzeddekah in return. It's a bit like being offered a drink of water on a hot day and then being presented with a bill. I suppose the attitude is that those who can afford the trip from Europe or North America can spare some money to support Torah scholars. I find their persistence and outrage at not getting a donation in response to a bracha off-putting. It makes you wary of engaging anyone in conversation for fear that they are there only to put the bite on visitors.

JC said...

That hasn't happened to me, but I agree that it sounds nasty