Applying Rabbinic Law on Tzedakah Priorities

The rabbinic sages taught that humans should emulate God by meeting the particular needs of people in trouble. But how should one go about that today?

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This article looks at traditional Jewish precepts regarding the giving of tzedakah to test their value for our own society. The author poses several questions regarding the principles that guided the rabbis of classical antiquity and their spiritual heirs as they articulated tzedakah priorities, and how we might--and perhaps should--apply these principles in our time. The use of "the Rabbis" refers to the rabbinic sages of late antiquity whose teachings are recorded in the Mishnah, the two Talmuds, and other works of that period. This article is reprinted from pages 187-89 from Down-to-Earth Judaism, by Arthur Waskow. Copyright (c) 1995 by Arthur Waskow. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

What are the issues we might face today?

First: How much of our own income ought we to give in tzedakah?

To this the Rabbis replied that no one could avoid giving altogether. Even the desperately poor, who received all their own income from tzedakah, should give small amounts of tzedakah. At the highest level, one might give one fifth of one's income, but no more than that, probably for fear that a too generous giver would end up becoming a charge on the community or would receive too much honor and power for the community's good. Normal was giving one tenth of one's income.

Second: How shall we choose to whom among the wide range of the poor we shall give?

The Rabbis replied that anyone who asked for food should receive it at once. Even a stranger whom one suspected of fraud should be fed. Hunger is a powerful emergency.

Those who were strangers to the community and asked for less urgent help should be queried. The community was responsible to give what they needed and therefore to make sure how much they needed. Yet no one who asked should be turned away utterly empty-handed.

Those who were known to the community, and whose needs were known, should not have their tzedakah delayed.

Giving should be extended in a series of concentric circles: first, to the poor of one's own near relatives, then [those] of the extended family, then of the city, and then of other cities and countries.

"For the sake of the paths of peace," said the Rabbis, non-Jews as well as Jews should be given tzedakah. This phrase has two sides. It can be understood either as grudging or as transformative. It might mean that although non-Jews are not really entitled to be helped, keeping peace in the world requires that they be given help. Or it can be understood to mean that for the sake of shalom, the highest communal good and goal, it is not only an obligation but a joy to help all human beings.

It may be whichever aspect of this phrase spoke most deeply to people--the fearful and prudential one, or the one that was visionary and hopefully--depended on what the relationships between Jews and their neighbors were in any given time and place. In our own generation, when most Jews are not oppressed or outcasts, both the prudential and the hopeful may fuse into one.

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Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.