A talmid jojom (Torah scholar) that is poor is one of the highest priorities in tzedaka, over a regular poor person. Is he still considered poor if he could be earning good money, but decides to learn instead and depend on tzedaka money? And more than that, does he still has priority over other poor people that can’t support themselves even if they try to?
This question (like many in Halacha) is complex with many related issues that must be taken into consideration.
The short answer: He probably is still considered poor if he has a good head for learning, will benefit the community, and this does not lead to sin.
He likely takes priority of another is a similar situation, but not over one who lacks basic necessities to survive. (See Ahavas Chesed (by the Chafetz Chaim), vol. 20:2) and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 251:11
Yet, every situation is different, and much judgement is needed to decide the best use of funds to benefit the individuals and the community.
The long answer:
It is important to consider the difference between:
- The obligation of the individual to avoid taking charity (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 255),
- The obligation of the communal tzedakah fund to provide for a person's basic needs (Shulchan, Aruch Yoreh Deah, 253, and ibid. 256), and
- The ideal of tzedakah, which is to provide a person with all of their needs (even luxuries) if possible (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 250:1)
The halachos and standards are different for each of these similar, but different issues.
In addition there are many aspects to this question:
- It is ideal to work (because it prevents sin).
Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi said: Excellent is the study of the Torah together with a worldly occupation; for the exertion [expended] in both of them causes sin to be forgotten. And all [study of the] Torah in the absence of a worldly occupation comes to nothing in the end and leads to sin.
- One should go to great lengths to avoid taking charity, even to study Torah.
We are taught as a general rule (Pesachim 112a) not to use tzedakah, even for (most) mitzvos:
Rabbi Akiva said: Make your Shabbat like a weekday and do not be beholden to other beings
One should always avoid charity and rather roll in misery than to depend upon the help of man. And thus our Sages commanded, "Rather make thy Sabbath a week-day2 than be dependent on men."3 And even though he be scholarly and respectable, let him engage in some occupation, even an unpleasant occupation, so as not to need the help of man.
Specifically about Torah:
Anyone who puts in his mind occupying himself with Torah and not working, but supporting himself from tzedakah, behold, this one desecrates the Divine name and dishonors the Torah. For it is forbidden to derive benefit from words of Torah, and any Torah that does not have work along with it, it attracts sin and he winds up robbing people.
- The obligation to study Torah (especially until one has learned all of the mitzvos with their laws) is a very great priority, especially if one has a good head. One should make great sacrifices to fulfill this mitzvah.
Whosoever is ambitious to establish this commandment properly and to become adorned with the crown of the Torah must not divert his thoughts to other matters, nor set his heart to acquire the knowledge of the Torah and wealth and honor simultaneously. The way leading to the knowledge of the Torah is such: "a morsel of bread with salt thou shalt eat, and water by measure thou shalt drink, upon the ground thou shalt sleep, and a burdensome life thou shalt live while thou toilest in the Torah." (Pirke Abot, 6.4; 21). Nevertheless, it is not obligatory upon thee to complete it, nor art thou free to exclude thyself from its study, for if thou hast increased thy study of the Torah thou also hast increased thy reward, as the reward is equal to the pain.
See Shulchan Aruch Harav on the special obligation to know the entire Torah, especially if one has a good head.
- There is a need for the community to have scholars, and if they cannot work and study (enough), the community must pay for their support. (Similar to supporting the kohanim and leviim).
And all of this applies to one who is healthy and can engage in his work or in a profession a little and provide for his livelihood. However, an elder or a sick person is permitted to derive benefit from his Torah such that they will provide for him. And some say that it is permitted even for a healthy person. And therefore the practice in all Jewish communities has been that the Rav of the city has an income and provisions from the other people of the city, so that he will not have to engage in work in front of other people, so that the Torah becomes degraded in front of the multitude. And [this applies] specifically to the sage who needs it, but for a wealthy person it is prohibited. And some are more lenient, saying that it is permitted for a sage and his students to accept subsidies from those who donate in order to strengthen the hands of those who study Torah, since in this manner they can engage in Torah in affluence. Nevertheless, one who is able to provide for himself well from the work of his own hands and to engage in Torah, it is a pious quality and a gift of God, but this is not the nature of all persons, for it is impossible for everyone to engage in Torah and to become wise in it and to provide for himself by himself....
- Anyone who wishes to dedicate themselves to serving Hashem and studying Torah becomes similar to a Levi.
Not only the tribe of Levi, but each well-informed thinking person whose spirit moves him to devote himself to the service of the Lord, to know the Lord, and has walked uprightly after casting off his neck the yoke of many a cunning wile that men contrived, is indeed divinely consecrated, and the Lord will forever and ever be his portion. God will provide sufficiently for his needs, as he did for the priests and the Levites. David, may he rest in peace, declared: "The Lord is my allotted portion and my cup; thou holdest my lot" (Psalm 16:5).
- Times change, and while it may be idea for everyone to work and study as was the custom in the times of the Talmud and Rishonim, it has become the custom for each community to support some people studying.
Some of the great scholars in Israel were hewers of wood, some of them drawers of water, and some of them blind: nevertheless they engaged themselves in the study of the Torah by day and by night. Moreover, they are included among those who translated the tradition as it was transmitted from mouth of man to mouth of man, even from the mouth of Moses our Master.
Rabbi Israel Meir Kagen (Chofetz Chaim) rules that even the Rambam would agree that nowadays one may learn full-time., since it is so difficult for someone to simultaneously devote himself to a livelihood and also master the Torah.
בכל דרכיך דעהו: כתב בתשובת דבר שמואל סימן קל"ח שאלה איזו היא דרך ישרה שיבור לו האדם אם לעסוק בתורה ולהרבות גבולו בתלמידים כל ימי השבוע וליהנות מאחרים או ליהנות מיגיע כפיו ומלאכה נקיה כל ימי השבוע ולעסוק בתורה לבד כל יום השבת [ואין כונתו שלא ילמוד כלל כל ימי השבוע דהא פשיטא דמחוייב האדם עכ"פ לקבוע עתים לתורה בכל יום כמבואר בסימן קנ"ה ובסימן רל"ח וביורה דעה סימן רמ"ו אלא כונתו על יתר העת שביום איך יתנהג. וגם שאלתו הוא דוקא אם העסק שלו הוא נקי מתערובות גזל ורבית ואונאה דאל"ה אין זה ספק כלל אחד דעסקים כאלו שוב אין נקרא נהנה מיגיע כפו אלא מיגיעת אחרים ועוד דמוטב להתבייש בעוה"ז ולקבל מאה מתנות ולא לעבור פעם אחד על לאו דאורייתא של לא תגזול] ואעתיק בקצרה עיקר תשובתו לשואלו הלא ראתה עינו הבדולח מה שכתוב בטור יורה דעה סימן רמ"ו בב"י ובב"ח ובט"ז ובש"ך בשם ספר ים של שלמה ומכולם האריך למענתו מהר"י קאר"ו בספרו כ"מ הלכות ת"ת פ"ה וכו' אך הנראה לע"ד שאפילו הרמב"ם ז"ל יסכים בנידון דידן להתיר דאין דנין אפשר משאי אפשר וכיון שכפי צורך השעה והמקום א"א לזה האיש החפץ בחיים להתקיים תלמודו בידו לזכות בו את הרבים כ"א בסיפוק צרכיו ע"י אחרים הרי הוא ככל המון הדיינים והחכמים שהיו מקבלים שכר מתרומת הלשכה כדגרסינן בכתובות פרק שני דייני גזירות והרמב"ם ז"ל פסק כן בהלכות שקלים פ"ד וז"ל מגיהי ספרים שבירושלים ודיינים שדנים את הגזלנים נוטלין שכרן וכו' ואם לא הספיקו להם אע"פ שלא רצו מוסיפין להם כדי צרכן להם ונשיהם ובניהם ובני ביתם. ואיך יעלה על הדעת שיורה בכגון זה הרב ז"ל שיותר טוב לאדם לאחוז בסכלות וחסרון החכמה כל ימיו אשר הוא גרמא לכמה נזקין ומכשלות תלמוד המביא לידי מעשה ולמנוע טוב מבעליו מפני היותו נהנה מאת אחיו וע"ש עוד מה שהאריך בענין זה ולפלא על הבה"ט שלא העתיק רק השאלה ולא התשובה:.
- Supporting full-time Torah scholars has precedence in Talmud and poskim, as well.
"Ten idlers: Respectable men who are free from work to be involved in the public needs, and to come first to the synagogue so that there will always be a minyan at the time of prayers. They are supported by the community."
What kind of city is considered large? Any in which there are ten idle men. Any less than that, it is considered a village.
Mishneh Torah, Shoftim, Sanhedrin 1:10 rules that this is a requirement for having a Sanhedrin in a city:
Why is a Sanhedrin set up only in a town that has a population of one hundred and twenty or more? The population must be sufficiently large to provide twenty-three judges, three rows comprising sixty-nine alternates, ten men of leisure for the synagogue (minyan), two clerks, two sheriffs, two litigants, two witnesses, two men to refute a testimony, two men to rebut those who refute, two charity collectors, plus one to constitute a minimum of three for the distribution of charity, a competent surgeon, a scribe, an elementary teacher; thus totaling one hundred and twenty.
Hope this helps!