Investigating the Individuals to Whom We Contribute

A contemporary Conservative rabbi reviews the Jewish legal literature for guidance on how much to ask about a person who solicits us for tzedakah--or whether to give to all who request our help.

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1. Rabbi Sheilah of Naveh made a play on the word "ha'evyon" [a needy person]: "This needy person hav hunakh [beware] of him." In other words, beware of cheaters. (Vayikra Rabbah 34:9) 

2. Rabbi Abbah did not want to embarrass the poor by having to look at them, following the principle of mattan baseter [giving in secret] (Bava Batra 9b and 10b), but he was wary of cheaters. He therefore would wrap the coins in his kerchief and drag it behind him and walk by the houses of the poor, but out of the corner of his eye he looked for cheaters (Ketubot 67b). 

3. There is one talmudic passage that gives explicit advice about avoiding charity fraud: "Rav Huna said: One investigates when asked for food, but not when asked for clothing." The Talmud explains that in his opinion, clothing is more urgent than food because it causes the beggar shame and should therefore be supplied, no questions asked. "Rav Yehudah, however, said: One investigates when asked for clothing, but not when asked for food." The Talmud explains that in his opinion, lack of food is more urgent than lack of clothing because it causes physical pain and suffering and should therefore be supplied without investigation. The Talmud concludes with a beraita [teaching of the early sages] which supports Rav Yehudah, and this latter ruling was codified by the standard codes of Jewish law.

It seems, then, that the guiding principle was that one waives investigation when faced with an urgent situation of human suffering: A person who asks for food may be in pain and may die. Therefore, you give him the benefit of the doubt and feed him on the spot. But a person who asks for a change of clothes can wait while you check him out. 

Times have changed and beggars no longer ask for food or clothing, but the same principle can be applied: If an emaciated person dressed in rags asks you for a quarter, you should give him the benefit of the doubt. But if a nicely dressed schnorrer comes to your door collecting for his yeshivah [a Jewish day school or institution of higher learning], you can take down his particulars and send him a check after checking out his legitimacy. No one will starve in the interim.

(Read Rabbi Golinkin's response about investigating organizations.)

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.