Maimonides' Eight Levels: A Comtemporary Reading

Jeff Spitzer mines Maimonides' 8 levels of Tzedakah for guidance on contemporary issues in tzedakah.

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Among the most widely known texts from all of rabbinic literature is Maimonides’ “Eight Levels of Tzedakah.” Although some of what Maimonides emphasizes might seem off-target when applied to contemporary society, much of what he emphasizes is valuable today, if for no other reason than to make us more reflective about our own practice. Maimonides begins his discussion with the top and works down, but Spitzer’s analysis works its way up from the bottom.

Joy and Sadness in Giving

The lowest two levels on Maimonides’ “ladder” contrast the person who gives with “a happy expression” (level 7) with one who gives out of sadness. The nearly universal explanation of this passage is that a person who gives out of sadness is one who is unwilling to give, or who gives grudgingly. 

The benefits of giving joyfully are numerous. Engaging a poor person with a cheery expression fulfills Isaiah’s admonition “pour out your soul” (Isaiah 58:10) to the needy. Giving joyfully to a collector of funds acknowledges the difficult and often thankless job of the tzedakah solicitor. Feeling happy about giving also makes us more likely to give again.

ladder in skyThese explanations, however, might be missing a crucial aspect of the contrast between giving with a happy face and giving out of sadness. One who gives out of sadness may be sad at the plight of the poor, and give only when moved to sadness. That person also might give despite pessimism that any assistance will really make a difference.

On the other hand, the person who gives happily sees an opportunity to help. The person who gives happily understands that it is better to have the assets to be in a position to help than to be unable to help. The person who gives happily looks at poverty as a challenge that must be met and not a decree from which there is no escape.

Taking Initiative in Giving

Levels five and six contrast giving before being we are asked and giving only after we are asked. Nowadays, many people are on the receiving end of what seems like an unending barrage of solicitation, so how can we give before we are asked?

One obvious way is to make our planned donations promptly. Each time we toss a solicitation from a tzedakah into the garbage, [it] means that we are going to get another letter or phone call. If we are already planning on giving to a tzedakah, why force the tzedakah to waste their funds and increase their overhead? Giving early can decrease the expenses for collecting and increase the funds that are actually going to work.

A more important way to give before being asked is to budget for tzedakah. Even if we has not yet found the right recipient, we can give tzedakah before being asked, by setting up our checkbooks so that a certain percentage is immediately deducted from any income we receive. Admittedly, this is easier with accounting software, but a pushke (tzedakah box) works the same way. If the money is already designated for tzedakah, it is “given;” all that is left to do at that point is to allocate the funds.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.