Charitable giving is a requirement of Jewish law. It is prescribed as a mitzvah (commandment). “When your brother will become poor, you will extend your hand to him” (Leviticus 25:35) and care for the “the stranger, and the orphan and the widow” (Deuteronomy 19:29).
Ever since the time of Abraham, there has been an obligation “to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right (tzedakah)” (Genesis 18:19). But “what is right” has been a subject of rabbinic interpretation ever since. The primary sources on this vast subject are Mishneh Torah, the first systematic codification of Jewish law by Maimonides in the 12th century, and the Shulchan Aruch, collated by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the 16th century.
The practice of ma’aser kesafim, giving 10% of one’s income, derives from Jacob’s commitment to God: “of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you” (Genesis 28:22). In the Talmud, an upper limit of 20% of income is set, based on the reasoning that a higher percentage may result in the giver himself becoming needy (Talmud, Ketubot 50a), but this does not apply if there is a need to save life.
Maimonides records eight levels of giving. The highest level is to help the recipient to become self-supporting, by finding or giving a job to the person in need, or making a loan to enable them to start up a business. “The giver who knows not to whom he gives and the recipient knows not from whom he receives” is the second highest level. The least good is the giver that is pained by the act of giving.
Rashi postulates in his commentary on Leviticus 25:35 that there is an even higher level of giving, that is to help people before they even require help on the basis that if a load “is still on the donkey, one person can grasp it and hold it in place. Once it falls to the ground, however, five people cannot pick it up” (Torath Kohanim 25:71). Giving before one is asked is particularly important in protecting the self-esteem of the person in need – as well as encouraging others to give as: “greater than one who does the mitzvah, is one who causes others to do a mitzvah” (Talmud, Baba Batra 9a).
The Talmudic concept of tovat hana’ah affords givers the right to choose the recipients of the money in a manner which provides them indirect benefit (Matnot Aniyiim 1:8). It is advised, though, that all funds should not be given to a single level of priority.
The amount that one gives should be calculated with care and ideally a separate fund should be established for funds to be held in trust for the ultimate recipients (Sefer Ma’aser Kesofim 50-54). Tzedakah should be given with compassion and happiness (Mishneh Torah 9:4). It should be made easy for recipients, so each community should have tzedekah administrators so the poor do not need to go house to house collecting (Sefer Tzedakah U’Mishpat 43). One should not brag about one’s giving, but it is acceptable to put one’s name on a gift for communal use (Shulchan Aruch 249:21).
Talmudic sources also wrestle with the ever-present issue of how givers are to decide on priorities. Most sources place the saving of life first (an interesting insight into the life of the times is the inclusion of ransom for captives in this category). We are told elsewhere that first comes closeness to the giver (relatives ahead of non-relatives); second comes intensity and nature of need (priority for those requiring food over those requiring clothing); thirdly, level of education (Torah scholars take precedence over non-scholars); fourthly gender (women take precedence over men). All these come before lineage, where a Jew takes precedence over a non-Jew.
Whilst strong ties of kinship and community are priorities for giving, as they are amongst all peoples, elsewhere in the Talmud we read: “We feed non-Jewish poor together with Jewish for the sake of peace (good relations).” (Talmud, Gittin 61a).
To conclude, there are no definitive answers to practical dilemmas of giving. Every Jew is commanded to give charity and help the needy. Jewish law leaves that open to interpretation, though within the parameters of these guidelines. Ultimately, this is our choice, and privilege.
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, April 2010 Issue.
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