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Is the purpose of Tzadakah to simply feed and house the poor, if so why did Hillel give the rich man a horse and run before him?

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  • Has Dr. Mizrahi answered your question? If so please feel free to accept it. I ask because the title of your question is very general, and the body of the question is very specific (and Dr. Mizrahi addressed the latter)
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 10:09

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The Torah says we must give a needy person "whatever he is lacking" [דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֶחְסַ֖ר לֽוֹ -- Dei machsoro, asher yechsar lo]. [Deuteronomy 15:7-8]

This has been understood to mean that we must support him to the standard to which he is used. It’s the poor, not the givers, who define what is lacking. As you wrote, the Talmud recounts that Hillel provided paupers who came from wealthy families with horses and servants to run before them since this was the lifestyle they grew up with. One time Hillel could not find a slave to run before the horse, so he ran before it himself for three miles. [Ketubot 67b] The Talmud provides other examples in the same page.

This assumes that the community is first able to support itself to the standard that it is accustomed to, before it offers needy people assistance over and above basic necessities. The Shulḥan Arukh summarizes:

How much should be given to the poor? Dei machsoro asher yechsar lo ... All that he lacks... How is that? If he is starving, feed him. If he needs clothing, clothe him. If he needs items for his house, buy him those items for his house. Even if he was used to riding on a horse with a servant running ahead of him while he was rich, and now he is poor, buy him the horse and the servant -- each man according to his needs. If he was used to receiving bread, give him bread. If he was used to receiving dough, give him dough. If he was used to having a bed, give him a bed. A person fitting to receive hot bread should continue to receive hot bread; cold bread, cold bread. If he was fed into his mouth, feed him into his mouth. If he came to get married, rent a house for him, prepare a bed for him and house utensils, and find him a wife. [Shulḥan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 250:1]

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