Reprinted with permission of the author. The full responsum (a rabbinic reply to a question of law), including footnotes not reprinted here, appears in Responsa in a Moment, published by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and is available at its “Responsa for Today” website. An additional question to ponder, which was not raised by the author: Since in our times, the government usually provides for the basic needs of the poor–how does this affect the issue? Our related article on “Investigating the Organizations to Which We Contribute” addresses many of the questions raised at the beginning of this article.
A “bag lady” accosts me on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and asks me for a quarter. Should I ask her why she doesn’t go out and get a job? A schnorrer [charity collector] knocks on my door, holds out a letter signed by an eminent rabbi and asks me to contribute to his yeshivah in Jerusalem. Should I check out the letter and the yeshivah? I enter my local Jewish bookstore and see five pushkes [charity boxes] on the counter. Should I automatically put a quarter in each, or should I read the fine print and investigate each charity’s legitimacy? Lastly, I receive many direct mail solicitations every month. Should I send a small donation to each, or investigate every charity that asks for money and send a larger contribution to the one that deserves it most?
Jews have been grappling with these dilemmas for at least 2,000 years. On the one hand, most individuals and organizations that ask for our help are legitimate and really do merit our tzedakah. On the other hand, a certain percentage of those who ask for money are charlatans and crooks.
Some tzedakah experts say that giving is a habit that must be cultivated. Therefore, it is better to give often and spontaneously, even if one is not sure about the credentials of the recipients because, if we stop to think about every contribution, we will get out of the tzedakah habit. Others say we should investigate before we give, because by giving to the wrong people and organizations, we may have technically fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah, but we are in fact depriving those who really need our help. Let us see what Jewish tradition has to say on the subject.
Surprisingly enough, the rabbinic sources have a basically positive attitude toward beggars. Maimonides clearly states:
Whoever sees a poor person asking [for assistance] and ignores him and does not give him tzedakah has transgressed a negative commandment as it is written, “do not harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7).
We do not know the talmudic source of this statement, but it is clearly in keeping with the following rabbinic passage:
Rabbi Abin said: This poor person stands at your door and the Holy One blessed be He stands at his right hand as it is written: “He stands at the right hand of the needy” (Psalms 109:31). (Vayikra Rabbah 34:9)
On the other hand, other passages recommend kindness to beggars for selfish reasons: “Rabbi Nahman said: This world is like a water wheel—the bucket that is full empties while the empty becomes filled'” (ibid. and parallels). In other words, you should give to beggars now, because one day down the road the tables may be turned—the beggar may become wealthy while you may become a beggar.
Nonetheless, our sages were not blind. They knew that some beggars were frauds and, even if investigated, some would escape detection. Indeed, a number of rabbis were duped by dishonest beggars. Rabbi Hanina, for example, was accustomed to send four zuz to a certain poor person every Erev Shabbat [Friday]. One time he sent the money with his wife. She returned and said to him, “There is no need… I heard them say to him: On what will you dine—on the white linen tablecloths or on the dyed silk tablecloths?”
This type of fraud prompted Rabbi Elazar to say: “Come let us be grateful to the cheaters, for were it not for them we [who do not always respond to every appeal for tzedakah] would sin every day.”
Other sages were not so forgiving. They resorted to cursing the cheaters in order to discourage fraud. The Mishnah (Pe’ah 8:9), for example, states:
Whoever does not need to take yet takes, will not depart from the world until he will be dependent on others… and whoever is not lame or blind and pretends to be, will not die of old age before he becomes like one of them, as it is written: “He who seeks evil, upon him it shall come” (Proverbs 11:27).
This warning was reiterated in four other places in rabbinic literature and was codified in the standard codes of Jewish law.
Yet, despite the fear of possible fraud, none of the sages refrained from giving tzedakah. After all, it is a positive commandment that, according to Rav Assi, is as important as all of the other commandments put together (Bava Batra 9a). Some later rabbis shared the liberal approach of Rabbi Chaim of Tzanz, a nineteenth-century hasidic rabbi:
I give tzedakah to one hundred poor people on the assumption that I may find one out of a hundred who is worthy and I will have the merit of helping him. But you refrain from giving to one hundred poor people… lest one of them be unworthy. Therefore know that the average beggar who holds out his hand is presumed to need the money and you should not concern yourself with hidden matters.
The talmudic sages, however, were more careful with their tzedakah. They realized that if you give to everyone who asks for money, you ultimately deprive those who really need the money. They therefore took precautions against fraudulent beggars:
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.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.