“The Highest Form of Jewish Giving” might be a surprise.

If you bring up the subject of tzedakah, money given for charity, many Jews will tell you two things:

1. Tzedakah is from the same Hebrew root as “justice.”  and

2. Maimonides taught a ladder of tzedakah, with making a loan as the highest form of tzedakah.

The first is true, the second is missing some bits.

1. Tzedakah is indeed from the Hebrew root associated with justice: tzadee, dalet, kuf.   The Hebrew for justice is tzedek.

2. Maimonides teaches us a hierarchy of virtue in giving tzedakah, from least to greatest:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Adapted from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14

“Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant” is a far cry from “the highest form of charity is a loan.” Maimonides specifies, first of all, that he refers to an interest-free loan or a money gift to enable a person to start a business. Providing an interest-free loan or a gift for education or training might also qualify. The Talmud (Shabbat 63) suggests that an interest-free loan is preferable because it is more sensitive to the dignity of the recipient. However, the highest form of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is to form a business partnership with the intended recipient, which means taking on risks and serving as an ongoing partner in the venture. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and should not be undertaken lightly. We are forbidden to give tzedakah beyond our means.

There’s a third point about tzedakah that gets less press. Maimonides teaches that when we select a recipient for a share from our limited resources, we should look first nearby and for the most in distress. “Nearness” might mean physical nearness (give to the food bank in your own county before you give to the one far away) or it might mean familial nearness, so help for the cousin who can’t make rent takes precedence over a non-relative, or an organization that will survive without our gift. (I can imagine development directors groaning at this one, but that’s what the Rambam says, folks.)

Maimonides warns, like a good investment advisor, against putting all of one’s tzedakah funds in one place: figure out how much is possible, then divide the funds between two or more recipients. So even if hapless Cousin Susie could absorb all one’s tzedakah, at least a bit should go elsewhere. Also (returning to that principle of helping people be self-sufficient) it may be best to help Cousin Susie get out of her current situation by assisting her in making terms with creditors, or moving into more affordable housing, or whatever will contribute to a long term fix.

For a more complete explanation of Maimonides on giving, I recommend this article online or the book from which it is excerpted, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, by Dr. Meir Tamari. Dr. Tamari is both a rabbi and an economist, serving for many years as the Chief Economist of the Bank of Israel.

In an era of growing income inequality it can be overwhelming to make decisions about tzedakah. I appreciate that our forebears thought a lot about this question and left us a framework for decision making.

Moderation and Mitzvah


A reader asked:

Rabbi, do you think that it’s acceptable to use repurposed items for home ritual such as Shabbat? Right now, living on a shoestring budget, I don’t really have the money for $200 candlesticks or a Kiddush set for Shabbat, so I’m using items I already had in the house (for now, at least). Sometimes I worry that this isn’t really as acceptable as I want it to be. Any thoughts?

It’s fine to use ordinary candlesticks for Shabbat candlesticks, or to use a plain wine glass for kiddush. I often use tea lights for Shabbat “candlesticks” when I travel, because they are light, hard to break and easy to pack. In a hospital setting, where fire is out of the question, we might use electric lights that are shaped like candles. The mitzvah is lighting lights, not buying fancy candlesticks.

It sounds like you are dealing with two competing Jewish values. One is hiddur mitzvah, the beautifying of a mitzvah, which is a praiseworthy thing to do. Beautifying the mitzvah broadens its appeal to our five senses and the pleasure we take in the mitzvah.

The other Jewish value here is m’tinut [moderation.] The great 12th century scholar Maimonides argued that moderation in all things was one of the marks of a chacham [Torah scholar.] It is not good to be a miser nor it is good to be a big spender. Rather, we should seek the level he called the Sh’vil HaZahav, the Golden Mean. This is true for every aspect of life: what we eat, what we wear, our use of time and money, even our choices for study. The exact standards will vary depending on our means and situation.

If the only candlesticks you own have other religious symbols on them, then it might be better to get some from the hardware store, or use tea lights. But there is no requirement that you spend large sums of money to perform this mitzvah.

My first havdalah “set” consisted of some foil to hold the candle, a sprig from a rosemary bush for spices, and a shotglass for the wine. The only purchased item was the candle, which had to have multiple wicks. Even for that, there are inexpensive options.

There are some mitzvot that are very expensive: Torah education, keeping a kosher home, making aliyah (moving to Israel), having children, to name just a few. But that’s because of the intrinsic cost, not the extras. Hiddur mitzvah by its nature is an extra, something done to make things a bit nicer. It’s a good thing – in moderation!