Question: Is it permitted for someone to put themselves in harm’s way in order to give tzedakah, or is the first obligation to protect one’s self from harm?
Answer: Giving tzedakah, or charity, is one of the most important parts of Jewish life. The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy reminds us over and over again that giving tzedakah is one way to get ourselves written in the Book of Life. So you could say that giving tzedakah can help the giver just as much, if not more, than the recipient.
But you’re right, Valerie, that sometimes it can be dangerous to give tzedakah. Often areas that are dangerous–politically unstable, ravaged by natural disasters, or otherwise unsafe–are the places where people most need tzedakah, and not just money, but all kinds of help, from jobs, to food, to interest-free loans. It can be dangerous to get to these areas, and there can be danger associated with the political ramifications of giving money to one group or organization over another. All Jews have an obligation to give tzedakah, so how much danger can/should we put ourselves in to fulfill this commandment?
I consulted with Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, Director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Rabbi Liebling told me that one should give at least 10% of one’s income and not more than 20% to tzedakah, with some exceptions to the 20% maximum. Why have a maximum? He said, “The maximum is set so that no one would impoverish themselves, leading them to be recipients of tzedakah, and presumably harmed. The general rule would seem to be that giving tzedakah should not place you in danger of poverty.” Essentially, you can’t seriously endanger your own life in order to help someone else.
I also asked Rabbi Jill Jacobs, author of There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition about this issue, and she agreed with Rabbi Liebling that there is no obligation to put yourself at risk in order to give tzedakah. But she also added that the risk/benefit calculation is tricky: “Real-life situations are rarely so easily divided into safe/dangerous. For example, if I get into my car to drive to donate money, I don’t think of myself as putting myself in danger. But, of course, I could get into a car accident on the way.” Sad, but true. So, how do I decide where to draw the line?
According to both Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Liebling, the best way to negotiate this difficulty is to keep in mind the Jewish obligation to save human life, and in every situation try to decide the likelihood that you’ll be put in danger by giving tzedakah versus the likelihood that your tzedakah will save a life. If the danger of giving is overwhelming, it’s probably best to save your tzedakah for another situation. However, if there isn’t much danger, and it’s very likely that you’ll save someone’s life, then it’s okay (some would even say a requirement) to put yourself out there in order to do good. Certainly if you are going to give tzedakah and you can do it either in person, in a dangerous situation, or send the tzedakah and do so without putting yourself in danger, the latter is preferable. No extra mitzvah-points are awarded for taking unnecessary risks. Plus, there is an added benefit to not giving in person–protecting the recipients’ dignity by giving anonymously.
Now get out there and give some tzedakah. Just make sure to look both ways before you cross the street!
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Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.