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Going Public
‘…From A Wealthy Roman Lady’
(Nedarim 50a)



Our Daf gives an account of several sources of Rabbi Akiva’s wealth. One was as a result of a large sum of money that he borrowed from a Roman lady of distinction when he needed funds for the academy’s expenses. The lady wanted guarantors for the loan, and Rabbi Akiva assured her that Heaven would be one guarantor, and the other would be the sea near which her house was situated. She accepted these terms. The date of payment arrived, but Rabbi Akiva was unable to return the money because he had taken ill. When the Roman lady realized that Rabbi Akiva was not coming, she went to the seashore and asked G-d, one of the guarantors, to return her money.

That very day a spirit of madness seized the Roman Emperor’s daughter. In a fit of anger, she took a chest full of treasures out of her father’s vault and tossed it into the sea. The sea carried the chest directly to the astonished woman who had just requested the return of her loan.

When Rabbi Akiva recovered from his illness, he went to repay the debt. The Roman lady told him that the loan’s guarantors had already taken care of the matter. In fact, the worth of the treasure she had received was far greater than the sum of the loan, and she generously offered to return the difference to Rabbi Akiva. According to Rashi, she gave Rabbi Akiva gifts of very great value.


Charity of Heathens

Elsewhere, however, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 27b) states that a gabbai tzedaka, a charity administrator, should not accept donations from heathens to help Jews. This is codified as the halacha (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 254:1). If Hashem’s people have to depend on other nations for means of support, it would be a profanation of G-d’s Name. If that is the case, how could Rabbi Akiva accept gifts from the wealthy Roman lady who had lent him money? How could he even accept the difference in value between the treasure she had received and the loan she had extended?

Our Sages provide an additional reason for their objection to the acceptance of charity from heathens (Bava Basra 10a-b). R. Yehuda said, citing Isaiah (56:1) that charity brings the redemption of the Jewish people nearer. And R. Yehoshua pointed out that the verse in Proverbs (14:34), “Righteousness exalts a nation…” refers specifically to the nation of Israel.
When we give charity, we bring our own redemption nearer. Heathens, however, do not give charity to fulfill a commandment. Rather, they do it in order to exercise dominion over the world.


A Sign of Esteem

An interesting answer is given in the work Lehoros Nossan, based on the words of the Taz (Yoreh De’ah ibid.), who states that if a non-Jew makes a donation for personal reasons, with no intention of fulfilling the mitzvah of charity, one may accept it, for in such an instance the reward is considerably smaller. According to this interpretation, presumably, Rabbi Akiva accepted the additional money because he knew that the Roman lady was giving it to him out of respect and not in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedaka.


Darkei Shalom

Another reason may be based on the statement in the Shulchan Aruch (ad loc.) ruling that if the heathen offering the money is honorable and well known, and declining his donation may offend him, one is permitted to accept it in order to maintain peaceful relations – darkei shalom.


A Public Charity Box

It once happened that a charity administrator in London decided to place charity boxes in several offices of the London Diamond Exchange, a place where many Jews are employed and do business. On the boxes it was written that the money was intended for the Rabbi Meir Ba’al HaNes charity fund, and the administrator’s intent was to afford Jews the merit of the mitzvah of tzedaka. After a while, though, it became apparent that many non-Jews had put large sums of money in the boxes as well. The surprised charity administrator saw this as problematic in terms of halacha, and referred the question to a rabbi. The question was eventually posed to Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss, who replied (Responsa Minchas Yitzchak, Vol.5:95) that preferably one should not place tzedaka boxes in public places that non-Jews [whose intentions may sometimes be questionable] frequent. However, so as not to offend those who run offices in the London Diamond Exchange, the charity boxes already placed there should stay, for if they were to be removed and the reason was discovered, people would probably feel insulted and that might spoil working relationships.


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.