“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.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

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

  1. I can see that Maimonides spent a lot of time thinking about the hidden motives behind charitable giving. In general, I decided that I can’t get too wrapped up in motives, and instead focus on the good done by charitable giving… But for myself, I try to keep my own motives as close to justice and pure human empathy as I can. I’m not perfect though.

    I’ve noticed, as a Jewish convert from Christianity, that my attitude is very different from many other Jews about public giving. I can’t imagine having my name publicly linked with money donations, like with a plaque or building named after me. (Naming a building after someone whose actions are worthy of honor is different.) I was raised with the New Testament admonitions about not making a big fuss about charity in public, and while a lot of other Christian values were examined and rejected in this process, that one just still resonates with me.

    It seems like Maimonides addresses this idea indirectly by talking about giving that is hidden from the recipient (though one could still brag to one’s friends and meet the letter of the law). But it’s not direct.

    My preference is definitely for anonymous giving… Although I like to highlight charitable causes on Facebook to bring them to others’ attention, without mentioning if I donated or not.

    1. I like that Maimonides recommends we enable others’ self sufficiency before we just give them money. But I have a couple of qualms with his ladder (above and beyond my previous objection that one can give anonymously to the recipient and still brag to others).

      1. Business arrangements can benefit oneself, which can lead to very murky motives. If one has a business hat on: looking at two people in need, it would be easy to choose the recipient who seems like a better bet for future financial success. If one has a pure philanthropic hat on: giving based on who needs it most, you might choose the one with mental illness, disabilities, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, etc. As I said, when one’s own finances get involved, it gets murky — a good business person has a hard time not making risk-reward decisions.

      The one exception I can think of are microloans. They help someone in need to be self sufficient, and provide a small return on investment to the giver.

      2. Merging charity and one’s family’s finances can be a really poor choice. This one is linked to the previous, but from the standpoint of being a responsible steward of one’s family’s finances. As a businesswoman, I think it’s irresponsible to go into business with just anyone; I have a responsibility to vet partners thoroughly and only choose that rare 1 in 100,000 kind of person, not every person in need. I read a lot of advice columns that talk about finances scuppered by dysfunction – a mom losing her house because she cosigned/paid bail for her feckless/addict/gambler grown child; a family business going under due to greed/embezzling/addictions/etc. I will happily hand out money from a functional, well run business to people in need, but I can’t imagine going into business with them.

      3. Paying for education and job training is great. This is very much asking the lines of enabling self determination, and I am a big fan. Do you think this counts as the top rung of the ladder in Maimonides’ scheme?

      1. What a great, thoughtful answer! Thank you so much!

        1. We agree about business arrangements – it requires a high degree of self-knowledge to engage at the highest level of Maimonides’ ladder. I find this is where it is important to have good advisors – people who will look over plans and tell me the truth.

        2. Good advice is doubly important in family issues. Things need to be done properly, and having professional advice is essential. For example, I have a family member who is disabled by mental illness; my wife and I help him financially, but everything is laid out carefully and we got legal and tax advice on it all.

        3. Paying for education and job training definitely counts as the top rung of giving. The point is to help people help themselves.

        4. One of my personal rules is that I do not give loans. I support the Hebrew Free Loan society, which gives loans.

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