Reprinted with permission of the author. The full responsum (a rabbinic reply to a question of law), including footnotes not reprinted here, appears in Responsa in a Moment, published by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and is available at its “Responsa for Today” website.
Some additional questions to ponder: Do most individuals have the time to check out the accountability of every one who solicits? The rabbis of antiquity did not live in days of mass mailings and telemarketing. Do these changes require a re-evaluation of some of the rabbinic norms and rulings?
[Many sources deal] with individuals who ask for money. What of organizations that today do most of their solicitation through pushkes [boxes for charitable contributions] or via the mail? How can we determine their legitimacy? The halakhah [Jewish law] provides two clear criteria: The trustworthiness of the gabbai or collector—today that means the person who runs the charity—and the financial records of the organization.
The Talmud states: A person should not give a penny to the communal charity purse unless it is under the supervision of a person [as honest as] Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon (Bava Batra 10b, Avodah Zarah 17b).
Rabbi Hananyah was chosen as the paradigm because once, when the funds of two different charities became confused, he made up the difference from his own pocket (Avodah Zarah ibid.). The standard codes of Jewish law therefore rule that “a person should only give to a charity fund if he knows that the overseer is trustworthy and wise and knows how to manage it properly.” In most cases, if the person running the organization is trustworthy, then the organization is trustworthy. People trust Yad Sarah in Jerusalem because they trust Uri Lupoliansky. People trust Hadassah because they trust the women who run it. People trust the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation because they trust Jerry Lewis.
As for financial records, the Talmud states: “One does not check the records of tzedakah collectors… as it is written [regarding the treasurers of the Temple]: ‘for they do their work in good faith’ “ (II Kings 12:16) (Bava Batra 9a). Maimonides (9:11) and Rabbi Joseph Karo (YD 257:2) simply quote the Talmud. But Rabbi Jacob ben Asher and Rabbi Moshe Isserles have a different approach (Tur and Shulhan Arukh YD, ibid.):
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