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?

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.

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.

How much should different recipients be given?

The Rabbis asserted that the psychological dignity of the recipients should be affirmed as well as their biological needs. Those who had been accustomed to a prosperous life should not be doled out a bare handful of food. The community is not responsible to restore their former wealth, but should not make them objects of scorn.

The effort–and sometimes the result–of this weave of ethics and law was to strengthen the dignity of the poor in their own eyes as well as those of the prosperous. Tales are told of poor people who went on strike, refusing to accept tzedakah that they deemed too stingy until the amounts were raised, as if their willingness to accept tzedakah were like the willingness of carpenters to build houses. Why would a community respond to such a threat? Only because everyone so strongly felt the obligatory nature of tzedakah that no community could live with a breakdown in. its ability to give.

The questions facing us today are not only whether we carry out these rabbinic principles, but whether we agree with all of them.

Do we affirm the concentric circles of recipients of tzedakah laid out by the Rabbis?

Do we agree with Maimonides that preserving the donor’s and the recipient’s anonymity achieves the best results?

Since buying a poor person “the fishing rod rather than the fish” costs more, how do we measure the immediate cost against the hope of future transformation?

Are large-scale fund-raising appeals, direct mail, telephone calls, and professional experts the most effective means of raising funds? Are they the only effective means? Do they change the process so much that it is important to preserve or restore face-to-face, community-based ways of giving tzedakah?

How do we balance the values of meeting the poor face-to-face with the values of far-reaching modern welfare systems?

Reprinted from Down-to-Earth Judaism, by Arthur Waskow. Copyright (c) 1995 by Arthur Waskow. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

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