Universe of Obligation



The 'Universe of Obligation' is "the circle of individuals and groups toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends." (Accouting for Genocide, Helen Fein, Free Press, 1979, p. 4)

As you study these texts, please consider the following questions:

1, What do each of these texts suggest about the extent of our obligation? Who is in your universe of obligation?

2. What do we owe to those inside our universe of obligation? What do we owe to those outside of our universe of obligation?

3. How do we prioritize among our different obligations?


Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 71a

Translation Original
R. Joseph learnt: If you lend money to any of my people that are poor with you: [this teaches, if the choice lies between] a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich the poor takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town the poor of your own town have prior rights. [Soncino translation]
דתני רב יוסף (שמות כ"ב) אם כסף תלוה את עמי את העני עמך, עמי ונכרי - עמי קודם, עני ועשיר - עני קודם, ענייך ועניי עירך - ענייך קודמין, עניי עירך ועניי עיר אחרת - עניי עירך קודמין.
  1.  What about this text do you think is wise? What about it is troubling?
  2. According to this text, what should we do when these binaries overlap - for example, how would you decide between a Jew who lives far away and a non-Jewish neighbor?
  3. How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation?

Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 61a

Translation Original
Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace. [AJWS translation]
ת"ר: מפרנסים עניי נכרים עם עניי ישראל, ומבקרין חולי נכרים עם חולי ישראל, וקוברין מתי נכרים עם מתי ישראל, מפני דרכי שלום.

Suggested Discussion Questions

  1. What might "for the sake of peace" mean?
  2. How does this text interact with the previous text?
  3. How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation?

Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De'ah 251:4

Translation Original
Now there is something fundamental about the details of the laws above that troubles me deeply. For if we explain the texts that I have cited according to their simple meaning – that certain groups are prior to others – they imply that [one may distribute the entirety of one’s tzedakah money to one group within the established hierarchy] and need not give at all to those who fall outside of that particular group . . .And if this is the case, poor people without wealthy relatives will die of starvation. Now how is it possible to say this?! Therefore, in my humble opinion, the explanation of [tzedakah priorities] is as follows: Certainly every person, whether of modest or significant means, is obligated to give a portion of his [or her] tzedakah money to needy people who are not relatives. . . . And in places where there are no wealthy residents, should people be left to starve? How is it possible to say this? Nor do people act this way. [translation by Rabbi David Rosenn, AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps]
 האמנם בעיקרי הדברים ק"ל טובא דאם נאמר דברים כפשוטן דאלו קודמין לאלו ואלו לאלו דהכוונה שא"צ ליתן כלל למדרגה שאחר זה ולפ"ז ... וא"כ לפ"ז אותם העניים שאין להם קרובים עשירים ימותו ברעב ואיך אפשר לומר כן. ולכן נלע"ד דבירור הדברים כך הם דבוודאי כל בע"ב או עשיר הנותן צדקה מחוייב ליתן חלק לעניים הרחוקים ... ובמקומות שאין עשירים יגוועו העניים ברעב ואיך אפשר לומר כן וגם המנהג אינו כן:
  1. What does the author of this text claim “troubles [him] deeply” about the positions he cites? What does he propose as an alternate reading of the law?
  2. How does this text resolve the tensions between the first two texts? What problems or questions remain?
  3. How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "The Dignity of Difference", (London: Continuum, 2002), p.30

David Hume noted that our sense of empathy diminishes as we move outward from the members of our family to our neighbors, our society and the world. Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them. What has changed is that television and the Internet have effectively abolished distance. They have brought images of suffering in far-off lands into our immediate experience. Our sense of compassion for the victims of poverty, war and famine, runs ahead of our capacity to act. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated. We feel that something should be done, but what, how, and by whom

Suggested Discussion Questions

1.  Do you agree with Sacks that media exposure to people suffering far away has increased your feeling of empathy and/or compassion for those people? What are some advantages and disadvantages of our greater exposure to distant suffering?

2. How are we meant to respond to these changes? Has our responsibility increased?

3. What are your answers to Sacks' questions in the last line?