The Midrashim (Midrash Tanchuma, Behar §3; Midrash Mishlei, Ch. 22; and Vayikra Rabbah §34:6) list up to nine different words in Hebrew which refer to the “poor”: ani, evyon, misken, rash, dal, dach, mach, ish-techachim and heilech. In this essay we will discover the nuances of each of these apparent synonyms and demonstrate how the Hebrew language is sensitive to different types of poverty and hardship.
The Talmud teaches (Bava Metzia 111b) that if one has the choice of hiring an ani or an evyon he should preferably hire the ani. The Talmud explains that an evyon is financially worse off than an ani, but an evyon is used to his situation and is not embarrassed to ask for hand-outs. The ani, on the other hand, is not in such an unfortunate position, and so he is too embarrassed to ask others to help him out. Because of this, the Talmud prefers hiring an ani to hiring an evyon. Thus, the Talmud seems to imply that ani and evyon describe degrees of poverty: An ani is poor but still has his pride, and attempts to maintain a normal façade. An evyon is so thoroughly impoverished that he has abandoned all pretense of self-sufficiency.
These definitions have ramification in a halachic discussion surrounding the commandment of matanot la’evyonim — giving “presents to the evyonim” on the holiday of Purim. Some authorities, like Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach (1639-1702) and Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, maintain that one should optimally give these alms to an evyon as opposed to an ordinary ani.
However, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1907) and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky explain that the original intent was not that alms should be given to an evyon as opposed to an ani; but rather to say that alms may even be given to an evyon — and certainly to an ani. This needed to be taught explicitly because an ani is the type of poor person who is still embarrassed to ask for charity. One might have thought that the commandment to give charity on Purim would focus on the ani in order to alleviate his poverty, while the evyon — who is so poor that he is not embarrassed to ask for charity — could be left to fend for himself. To counter that impression the Scroll of Esther says that the obligatory charity can even be given to an evyon — but optimally should be given to an ani whose needs are more pressing and are otherwise less likely to be met.
Along these lines, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) mentions an idea that he saw in an unpublished commentary by Rabbi Avraham ben Yitzchak HaLevi Tamach (d. 1393) to Eshet Chayil (Ode to the Woman of Valor). The verse writes that she “stretched her palm to an ani, and sent forth her hands to an evyon” (Prov. 31:20). Rabbi Tamach writes that an evyon’s needs are greater than an ani’s, so the Woman of Valor just gave the ani a hand, while she gave two to the evyon. (Although Rabbi Wertheimer only saw this commentary in manuscript form, it was later published by Dr. Leon Aryeh Feldman of Rutgers University in a 1971 Sefer Zikaron honoring Dr. Shmuel Mirsky.)
Thus, as reflected in the Talmud and halacha, an ani is just poor, while an evyon is impoverished. The ani attempts to hide his poverty, while the evyon is too desperate, and is even willing to ask for charity.
Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230-1300) notes that the word ani (spelled with an ayin) is derived from the word inui (“affliction”). He understands that an ani is a person suffering from any affliction — not just financial hardship. Nonetheless, in almost all contexts an ani is somebody suffering from fiscal problems.
The word evyon is related to the word taav (“desire”) because the poor man is full of desires but cannot fulfill them. Rabbi Bedersi notes that according to this even a rich man can be called an evyon if he desires more than he has and cannot realize those desires. Rabbi Bedersi notes that most wealthy people want more than they have, so in certain ways they can aptly be called evyonim. The fact that an objectively wealthy person can be termed “poor” because he feels that he is lacking gives us a better appreciation of a famous Mishna: “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot” (Avot4:1).
In his work Sefer HaMussar,Rabbi Yehuda Kalatz (a late 15th century scholar exiled from Spain to North Africa) concurs with the definition of an evyon as one who has many desires but no way to practically fulfill them. However, he adds that the evyonis the one who created this situation by refusing to even try to help himself. The ani works hard his whole life trying to make a living, but only manages to eke out a very limited livelihood. The evyon, on the other hand, is lazy. He wants money but he has no skills, learns no trade and does not involve himself in business. He does not even know how to effectively appeal for charity.
The word misken (commonly translated as “unfortunate”) is related to the word sakana (“danger”) because the poor man’s forced austerity puts his life in danger. Rabbi Yehuda Kalatz explains that misken refers to any person who expects others to support him but is instead met with mockery and derision. Similarly, Rabbi Wertheimer explains that a misken is so poor and downtrodden that people mistake him for a crazed lunatic and pay no attention to him.
The word rash is related to the word yerusha (“inheritance”) and refers to the dispossession of property. It is a synonym for “poor” because the poor person’s property has been “dispossessed” by others, causing him to lose everything. Alternatively, Rabbi Wertheimer suggests that the word rash is related to yerusha because rash denotes a poor person, the son of a poor person. Such a person grew up poor and has never experienced prosperity in his entire life, but “inherited” his poverty as his lot from the cradle.
The term dal literally means “minus” or “subtracted.” The Malbim explains that dal refers to any person who lost money, even if he is not poor enough to receive charity. This is why the word dal never appears in conjunction with charity. Rabbi Kalatz writes that dal specifically refers to a person who was once rich but then lost his affluence. In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that the root dalet-lammed primarily refers to drawing water from a well (hence the word d’li, which means “pail”), but was borrowed to mean “poor” because a person bereft of his fortune is like a well emptied of its water.
The word dach means “smashed” and shares a root with the Hebrew word medocha (“pestle”). A dach refers to a poor man because his inability to procure food leaves him undernourished and emaciated — giving him a “skinny” or “smushed” appearance. Rabbi Bedersi writes that even a rich person can be called dach if he has contracted some sickness which makes him skinny.
The word mach also means “smashed,” but in a more abstract rather than in a physical way. The poor man is “smashed” because he is at the mercy of others. Because he has to subjugate or subordinate himself to others he feels “squashed” by them. Alternatively, Rabbi Bedersi explains that a mach does not necessarily have a low income but is still “pressed” to meet certain financial obligations that are beyond him. Rabbi Pappenheim writes that the root of the word mach is the letter kaf, which refers to “hitting” or “smiting.” This describes a poor person who has been “stricken” with bad mazal (luck).
Some sources list the term ish-techachim (Prov. 29:13) as another synonym for a poor person, while others do not include this term. Rabbi Wertheimer explains that the root of the dispute lies in the word techachim’s root. If its root is the letter kaf, then (like mach) it refers to somebody who has been “stricken” with poverty. However, if it is tav-vav-kaf, then techachim is related to the word toch (“inside” or “middle”) and refers not to somebody poor, but to somebody with means (i.e. he has something “inside”), or to a person with a “middle”-of-the-road economic condition.
The word heilech as “poor” appears once in the Bible (I Sam. 12:4). The root of heilech literally means “going” and refers either to the poor person who “goes” around from door-to-door trying to raise money, or to the fact that all his assets “went” away. However, heilech can also refer to any sort of panhandler or itinerant merchant/salesman, regardless of his financial situation. Perhaps because it does not exclusively refer to somebody “poor”, heilech too appears only in some of the Midrashic sources above, but not in all of them.