Communities and individuals have limited budgets, and it is necessary to set priorities for allocating funds for tzedakah. Jewish legal and ethical writings provide guidelines for each aspect of a person’s and a society’s decisions in this regard: how much to give, and to whom, as well as who may be solicited for contributions and the extent to which the claims of those seeking assistance should be investigated.
The first principle of tzedakah is that one is obligated to provide the poor person with all that he or she needs. This may include food, clothing, household articles—even wedding expenses. Perhaps the flexibility of the concept of “need” is what leads to this surprising requirement: a community’s responsibility to its impoverished members is proportionate to the material standard of living enjoyed by them before their impoverishment. The formerly wealthy are entitled to a higher level of support than those accustomed to a modest income. That policy must, of course, be subject to guidelines and limitations for it to be practical and fair.
Most legal authorities argue that one is obligated to give to anyone and everyone who “extends his hand” to ask for tzedakah, Jews and gentiles alike. One must give at least some small contribution to every beggar, even if the community’s tzedakah fund (or one’s own) is depleted.
The legal requirement to give tzedakah encompasses even the poor who are themselves recipients of tzedakah—a clear indication that the institution’s function goes beyond the realm of economics to touch the individual soul and influence the values learned through Jewish practice.
Within the limits of a person’s ability to give, there are clear priorities for the allocation of the funds one has set aside for this purpose. One’s own livelihood takes precedence over all others; one is not obligated to give tzedakah unless one’s own livelihood is already assured. After that, the livelihood of one’s parents takes precedence, followed by that of one’s children and other relatives, and finally one’s immediate neighbors and other residents of one’s town.
A talmudic discussion records a difference of opinion about whether one should trust or investigate the claims of someone who alleges that they need assistance in purchasing food or clothing. Later tradition reflects a similar ambivalence. Fraudulent claims may be rooted out through careful investigation, but the potential violation of the privacy and dignity of the would-be recipient may merit restraining one’s zeal to inquire too deeply into the claimant’s affairs.
Concern for preserving the dignity of those forced by circumstances to ask for material help from others—indeed, a desire to prevent such a fate from befalling one’s fellow human beings—is at the core of medieval thinker Maimonides’ suggestion that the highest form of tzedakah is enabling every adult person to be economically self-sufficient.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.