“When your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself in the community, you must come to his aid. Help him survive, whether he is a proselyte or a native [Israelite].” (Vayikrah 25:35)

The verse above is one of several sources in the Torah for the mitzvah of tzedakah, charity (Rambam, Hilchot Matanot Aniim 7:1). Tzedakah is a highly developed area of Jewish Law that covers many aspects of this important mitzvah. Some of the issues raised by the Talmud and Codes are: Who is obligated to give? Who qualifies as a beneficiary? How much must one give? Which needs take priority over others when there are limited funds available and which beneficiaries take priority over others? How are charitable donations collected and how are they distributed and by whom? If funds were raised for a specific purpose, may they be used then for a different purpose? What are the consequences if one pledges charity in public and then reneges on his promise? Is there a time frame in which charity must be given? Is the percentage given to charity from one’s earnings before or after tax? All of these questions and many others are dealt with by the Sages and the great Poskim (halachic experts). 

In a famous passage, the Rambam (ibid, 10:7-14) deals with the question of how one gives charity. He enumerates eight distinct levels in descending order, and his ruling is cited almost verbatim by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 249). The Rambam formulated his list based on his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Talmud. His genius was to gather all the relevant sources together and compiled a hierarchy of how one fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah. What follows is Rambam’s list with my own comments and explanations:

  1. “The highest level beyond which there is none is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand will be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms]. Concerning this [Vayikrah 25:35] states: “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.” The very best thing you can do for someone who is struggling financially is to ensure that they have the ability to support themselves and are not reliant on the kindness of others.
  2. “A lower [level] than this is one who gives charity to the poor without knowing to whom he gave and without the poor person knowing from whom he received. For this is an observance of the mitzvah for its sake alone. This [type of giving was] exemplified by the secret chamber that existed in the Temple. The righteous would make donations there in secret and poor people of distinguished lineage would derive their livelihood from it in secret. Close to this is giving to a charity fund. A person should not give to a charity fund unless he knows that the person managing it is faithful, wise, and capable of administering it in a proper manner as Rebbe Chananya ben Tradyon was.” Asking for charity is extremely difficult and humiliating. When neither the recipient nor the giver know each other’s identity, the humiliation is considerably diminished. We live in a community that has many charitable organisations that make giving in this fashion easy. For example, the UJC (United Jewish Campaign) collects funds for all the welfare and education institutions in Cape Town. The Campaign is run by extremely trustworthy people and allocations are made using strict criteria.
  3. “A lower level than that is an instance when the giver knows to whom he is giving, but the poor person does not know from whom he received. An example of this were the great Sages who would go in secret and throw money into the doorways of the poor. This is a worthy way of giving charity and it is a good quality [to express] if the trustees of the charitable fund are not conducting themselves appropriately.” There are times when a benefactor wants to assist a specific needy person. The recipient may be a friend or family member. To preserve the recipient’s dignity, the giver must ensure that the gift is given anonymously. This can be achieved by giving it to a trusted third party. The Claremont Wynberg Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund can assist in this regard. Funds received by donors are transferred to beneficiaries completely anonymously.
  4. “A lower level than that is an instance when the poor person knows from whom he took, but the donor does not know to whom he gave. An example of this were the great Sages who would bundle coins in a sheet and hang them over their shoulders and the poor would come and take them so that they would not be embarrassed.”
  5. “A lower level than that is giving [the poor person] in his hand before he asks.” Even though in this instance the giver and the recipient are aware of each other’s identity, the giver can still save the recipient some humiliation by giving the charity before he asks. The very act of asking for help is one with which most human beings struggle.
  6. “A lower level than that is giving him after he asks.”
  7. “A lower level than this is giving him less than what is appropriate, but with a pleasant countenance.” Indeed, the prophet Isaiah (chapter 58) enumerates 11 blessings that Hashem will shower upon a person who “offers their soul to the hungry.” In a previous halakha (10:4), Rambam writes, “Whenever a person gives charity to a poor person with an unpleasant countenance and with his face buried in the earth, he loses and destroys his merit even if he gives him 1000 gold pieces. Instead, he should give him with a pleasant countenance and with happiness, commiserating with him about his troubles, as [Job 30:25] states: “Did I not weep for those who face difficult times; did not my soul feel sorrow for the destitute?” And he should speak to him words of sympathy and comfort, as [ibid. 29:13] states: “I would bring joy to a widow’s heart.”
  8. “A lower level than that is giving him with sadness.” 

A giver should not resent the fact that he has to part with his money. Rather, he should rejoice in the knowledge that God has blessed him with enough resources to care for himself and for others. In the words of the Talmud (Shabbat 151b), “Whoever has compassion on people, they will be compassionate to him from Heaven and whoever does not have compassion on people, they will not be compassionate to him from Heaven.”

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!    

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