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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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.”

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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.