The mitzvah of tzedakah made easy
By Diana Burmistrovich
(JNS) The Mishneh Torah dsccribes tzedakah as a personal duty in which we give 5-10 percent of our income to sustain our community and to help those in need. Meaning “righteousness” in Hebrew, tzedakah is neither a charge nor charity. It’s a mitzvah, or commandment, that all Jews are obliged to follow. Even the poor are required to give tzedakah, according to their means. That being said, tzedakah isn’t meant to be burdensome or run your personal finances into the ground. Here are some tzedakah options:
Fund or start a kosher food pantry in your town. Many people seek to uphold their religious principles during trying times, so why not make that a little easier for them? Several of Connecticut’s has six Jewish Family Service organizations, which are spread throughout the state, run kosher food pantries or support local food pantries.
Get in touch with a local Hillel organization and help fund a scholastic trip for Jewish college students. There are a total of 18 Hillel houses and Jewish student organizations that serve Jewish students at Connecticut’s colleges and universities.
Donate to an organization in Israel. Consider groups like Migdal Ohr, which provides education and social guidance to children from underprivileged and rough homes in northern Israel, with issues including overcrowded apartments, one-parent families, drug problems, poverty, and crime within the family. Table to Table harvests excess fresh food from caterers, cafeterias, manufacturers, grocers and farmers to feed Israel’s hungry. Paamonim helps Israeli families in financial distress regain their footing. OneFamilyFund helps rehabilitate and rebuild the lives of the victims of terror and war Israel. And so many more.
Start two tzedakah boxes for your family: one for loose change and one for collecting names of organizations to donate to. At the end of every month, draw a name from the second box and donate all the money from the change box to it.
The recipient of your tzedakah does not necessarily have to know who you are. Donate to a larger organization that benefits mankind, like IsraAID, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, an Israel-based non-governmental organization that is often the first international organization to respond to emergencies all over the world with targeted humanitarian help.
Take your old clothes to the shelter or to an organization that provides clothing to the needy. There are several such programs in Connecticut: Tara’s Closet, sponsored by JFS of Greater Hartford, provides clothing to JFS clients in a confidential and dignified manner and, at the same time, raises funds to spread awareness about mental illness; Ken’s Closet, sponsored by JFS of Greater New Haven, supplies business clothing to clients who need help navigating the challenges of the job market.
Give a homeless person you pass on the street a few more dollars than you would regularly. Similarly, pulpit rabbis are often aware of those in the community in need of financial aid. Consider giving your rabbi cash to disperse among those he or she knows are in need.
Give a donation in honor of a friend or family member as a gift. Works best for those who seem to “have it all,” making it difficult to come with original gift ideas for them. Instead of giving them another material object that’s likely to gather dust, help them contribute to a meaningful cause.
The 8 levels of tzedakah
Among the most widely known texts from all of rabbinic literature is Maimonides’ “Eight Levels of Tzedakah.” Though it is centuries old, much – if not all – of what he emphasizes is still valuable today – at the very least, it gives cause to reflect on one’s own giving habits. This translation of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14, by Dr. Meir Tamari, and adds interpretation. Excerpted from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (1995, Jason Aronson, Inc.).
Maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah are presented here in ascending order.
1. Business partnerships with the poor
The highest degree of charity – above which there is no higher – is he who strengthens the hand of his poor fellow Jew and gives him a gift or [an interest-free] loan or enters into a business partnership with the poor person. The loan is a higher form of charity than is the outright gift since the poor are not shamed thereby (Rashi on Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 63a), while the business partnership is more praiseworthy than the loan or any other form of charity.] By this partnership the poor man is really being strengthened as the Torah commands in order to strengthen him till he is able to be independent and no longer dependent on the public purse. It is thus written, “Strengthen him [the poor person] so that he does not fall [as distinct from the one who has already become poor] and become dependent on others” (Leviticus 25:35).
[In modern terms, these are all charitable actions aimed at breaking the poverty cycle and enabling the poor to establish themselves as independent and productive members of society. For this reason, there is no halachic objection to the poor working while they are receiving their basic needs from society.]
2. Anonymous giving and receiving
A lower standard of charity is one in which the benefactor has no knowledge of the recipient and the latter has no knowledge of the individual source of charity – matan b’seter [“giving in secret”]. This is practicing the mitzvah of charity for the sake of the mitzvah [since the benefactor has no benefit]. Such charity is like the courtyard in the [ancient] Temple where the righteous used to place their donations secretly and the poor would benefit from them in secret. Similar to this secret courtyard is the act of one who puts his money into the charity box [or funds].
3. When the donor knows the identity of the recipient
Below this rank is the case where the recipient is known to the benefactor but the latter is unaware of the source of the charity. [Since the benefactor may have, subconsciously, pleasure and a sense of power over the recipient, this makes it less meritorious than the previous standard.] This is what the sages used to do when they would go in secret and place their gifts at the door of the poor.
4. When the recipient knows the identity of the donor
Where the recipient is aware of the source of the charity but the giver does not know to whom the money is being given, the degree is lower [since the recipient, knowing who gave him the money, feels beholden to him and ashamed in his presence]. Yet, there is merit since the poor are saved from direct shame.
5. When both donor and recipient know, but gift precedes request
Of less merit is charity where both donor and recipient are known to each but [at least] the gift is made before the poor asks for it. [In this case the giver is showing care since he anticipates the needs of poor. The patriarch Abraham does not wait for the stranger to come to ask for his assistance, but runs toward him and begs him to share his hospitality.
6-8. When the recipient has to ask for help; when gift is given willingly; when given grudgingly
[Clearly] where one gives charity after being asked for it is of a lower degree. [Since the method of giving charity is an integral part of charity], one who gives less than what is fitting but with good grace [is of higher merit than] one who gives unwillingly.