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.

Is Giving Anonymously Always Best?

Levels Two, Three and Four describe differing degrees of anonymity in giving. Level Three, where the recipient does not know the donor, and Level Four, where the donor does not know the recipient, are based on earlier rabbinic stories and serve to spare the recipient from shame or from a sense of indebtedness to the donor.  The second level, where neither the donor nor the recipient know each other, however, repeats what may be an incorrect interpretation.

Maimonides refers explicitly to a secret chamber in the Temple in Jerusalem where the pious would give tzedakah in secret and the impoverished children of wealthy parents would go in and take what they needed, and thus be supported in secret. This same passage is also found in an early midrash:

“You shall surely give to him” (Deuteronomy 15:10) --  it is between you and him. On this basis they said [in the Mishnah]: “There was a secret chamber in Jerusalem...”                               (Sifrei Deuteronomy, Re’eh, 64).

This midrash may be the ultimate source of Maimonides' (over) emphasis on anonymity. “It is between you and him” does not necessarily lead to the concept of the anonymous, secret chamber. “Between you and him” only implies that the donor and the recipient should [or should not] share a private relationship.

In a depersonalized society, lacking the strong network of personal relationships that once served as a social safety net, anonymity can exacerbate the problems of poverty. The secret chamber in the Temple certainly teaches that one must protect the dignity of the poor, but perhaps more important is the personal engagement with the needy. The kind word, the regular care provided in the course of serving in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, the sense of personal interest that identifies need with an individual and not with an anonymous, faceless homeless person is a greater fulfillment of seeking justice "between you and him."

Another problem with anonymous giving is that it feeds into a sense of reticence about discussing the role of money in our society. Giving publicly allows people to influence others by example. This is not about recognition for giving (although that does motivate people to give), but about normalizing the attitude that people who have income have a responsibility towards those who are in need.

Many people will still want to give anonymously. Maimonides explicitly indicates that “similar to [giving with mutual anonymity] is one who gives to the community chest for tzedakah.” This could mean giving to an established collective that redistributes funds; examples of such collectives are the United Jewish Communities, the New Israel Fund, and the Ziv Tzedakah Fund. It could mean establishing our own small tzedakah collective with friends and family. Wherever we put our tzedakah funds, we must make efforts to assess the administrator's reliability.

Supporting Self-Sufficiency

“The highest level of all is the one who supports the hand of a Jew who is falling and gives to him (1) a gift or (2) a loan or (3) creates a partnership with him or (4) creates (invents) work for him in order to strengthen his hand, before he becomes dependent on asking [for assistance]. Concerning this, it says, ‘And you shall strengthen him as a stranger and as a resident-settler that he should live among you’ (Leviticus 25:35) -- that is, support him before he falls and becomes needy.”

(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7)

As Maimonides indicates with the phrase “before he falls and becomes needy,” the highest level is “preventive tzedakah.” The specific implementations -- gifts, loans, partnerships, employment -- are listed in increasing order of the level of security each affords. A gift can run out; a loan would be for a larger amount, and might finance a business; a partnership might fail, but here the person providing funding has a greater interest in success than in the case of a loan; providing employment, however, is the greatest social program.

Progressing from gifts to employment, the frequency of interaction between the donor and the needy recipient increases. A gift requires no further interaction with the needy person. A loan requires repayment. In a partnership, the donor will regularly check on the investment. An employee, however, would probably have a daily interaction with an employer.

It may be easier to fulfill this level of tzedakah in the context of professional life than in private life.

Choose the Right Bank or Vendor

We should consider doing personal and commercial banking at a bank that invests in new small businesses, and has a portfolio of loans and programs for new entrepreneurs. Banks take on specific, quantifiable amounts or risk. If a business or organization puts its operating funds in a bank that has a community reinvestment program, that account will directly offset some of that risk and facilitate the loans to individuals who may be working their way out of poverty.

While real partnerships are not always feasible, relationships like partnerships can have a similar economic impact. Specifically, we can find and use vendors from companies that are owned by or employ significant numbers of people who have moved off of welfare or are from communities with depressed local economies.

Although the government has been able to create work for the sake of putting people to work, most businesses and individuals cannot do that. Yet, if businesses adopt practices like choosing responsible vendors who are employing people who otherwise might need public support, then the best way to create work is to grow one’s business. By creating wealth within a business, and by normalizing the practice of choosing untraditional vendors and contractors chosen for reasons of social consciousness, we create work and fulfill the obligation of “strengthening the hand.”

Hire Counterintuitively

We can also hire people to work within our organizations. The conventional wisdom is that people are more likely to hire people who are already employed. Still, if we are in the position to hire, that may not be the best approach. After a period of significant downsizing, many highly talented people will be looking for work. They may have used the time while unemployed to expand or hone their skill sets, and they may be outstanding job candidates.

Also, we can give a second look to the applications of people who are new to the workforce or who are emerging from public assistance. Establishing mentoring programs to train new employees can leverage that investment and increase the probability of having hired an energetic and loyal employee. Equitable and enlightened hiring practices can generate valuable good will, and an employee who is grateful for having been given a chance may be more invested in doing a good job.

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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.