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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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.

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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.