Image: A person pulls their jeans’ pockets out, empty. (shuldnerhilfe/pixabay)
What is the responsibility of the low-income person in giving tzedakah (money contributions for the relief of suffering)? What are the tzedakah requirements for the person who may have income, but whose responsibilities are so numerous that they are “cash-poor”?
Jewish tradition is adamant that the commandment of tzedakah applies to all of us, from the wealthiest Jew to the poorest. For the wealthy, Maimonides prescribes a minimum of 5% of income after taxes with a maximum of 20%. That prescription may seem a mockery for anyone struggling to pay the rent. The Shulchan Aruch, an influential code of Jewish law, is adamant that even the poorest person is required to give something.
What is a low-income person supposed to give, if they have no money? Why require such giving from the poor? What are some strategies for giving when we simply don’t have the cash?
- What are the poor required to give? Most sources cite Exodus 30: 12-16, which states that “the poor will not give less than half a shekel.” A biblical shekel is estimated to be $2 or $2.50. The poorest person has fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah if they contribute at least $1 annually to the relief of other sufferers. The recipients may be relatives of the giver. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei-ah 7:13) Those who can give more than that absolute minimum should do so, but not at such a level that their own subsistence is threatened.
- Why require such giving from the needy? Our tradition puts a high value on the dignity of every individual. The person who has to receive tzedakah may feel embarrassed at being the recipient of aid, but their dignity is bolstered by the knowledge that they, too, contribute to the support of the poor.
- Can a person not contribute instead by volunteering their time? Volunteer work is a different mitzvah: it is gimilut hasidim, deeds of lovingkindness. It cannot substitute for giving tzedakah.
Some strategies for giving when money is tight
I’m speaking here not to “the poorest of the poor” but to the average person who has limited income.
Take stock of the tzedakah one is already giving. If a person is in the habit of “helping out” friends or relatives with the rent or roceries, that’s tzedakah. If a person hands loose change to people on the street, that’s tzedakah. If a person is supporting an adult child or relative with a mental or physical illness, whatever they spend on that is tzedakah. Money one spends on groceries that are cooked into a meal for a needy person is tzedakah.
One may give tzedakah as a gift. If one is a member of any community, there are times when we are expected to give gifts, something that can become quite a burden. Where a gift of a very small amount might be all one can afford, one can give a donation of $5 to a charitable organization in honor of the wedding or the bar mitzvah. The organization does not report the amount given, they just send a card reporting the gift with thanks.
One may make a micro-loan through an organization such as kiva.org. Kiva brokers loans of $25 to create opportunities for people to become self-sufficient. While the money will be tied up during the period of the loan, it is exactly that: a loan. At the end of the repayment period, one can get the entire $25 back. Kiva loans are not risk free, but they are fairly safe, with a repayment rate of 96.9% or a failure rate of 3.1%. Such loans qualify as tzedakah because they allow the borrower to move from a situation in which they need aid to real independence. (According to Maimonides, this is the highest form of giving.)
Keep a pushke or tzedakah box. Collect small coins over time in a little box, and when it fills up, give the contents to any charitable organization or to a needy person. This little box can be a “penalty box” for sin (e.g. a swear jar) or a “blessing box” for happy moments.
By the way, our tradition includes all money given for relief of suffering to be tzedakah, whether the recipient is Jewish or not. Giving money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents people suffering from injustice or those unjustly imprisoned, is a perfectly acceptable form of tzedakah. It is good to “take care of our own” but the sages also point out that giving that goes beyond the borders of our community promotes peace.