Urban Tzedakah Values, Rabbi Aaron Levy (Part 1 of 2)


Who should give Tzedakah?

Deuteronomy 15: 7-11

Translation Original
If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsfolk in any of your settlements in the land that ‘ה your G-d is giving you, …. You must open your hand and lend him/her sufficient for whatever s/he needs… Give to her/him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return Hashem your G-d will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsfolk in your land.
(ז) כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה א נֹתֵן לָך,,,,:(ח) כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ: (י) נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹא יֵרַע לְבָבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ י אֱ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ: (יא) כִּי לֹא יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַּעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶךָ:

Rambam, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:2

Translation Original
And any who sees a poor person begging and hides his eyes and does not give him charity transgresses a negative commandment, as it says (Deuteronomy 15:7), “Do not harden your heart or close your hand from your poor brother.” [AJWS translation]
וכל הרואה עני מבקש והעלים עיניו ממנו ולא נתן לו צדקה עבר בלא תעשה שנאמר (דברים טו:ז) לא תאמץ את לבבך ולא תקפוץ את ידך מאחיך האביון.


Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De'ah, 251:3, 5

Translation Original
The Tur writes in the name of Rav Saadia Gaon: “A person’s own livelihood takes precedence over that of anyone else, and one is not required to give tzedakah until he [or she] has acquired a livelihood, as it says: “And your fellow will live with you” (Leviticus 25:36), meaning your life takes priority over that of your fellow’s. A person who earns a living, like that of an important land owner, that allows him to eat bread, meat and spices and dress nicely, should certainly give a tenth or a fifth of his or her income. [AJWS translation]
כתב הטור שם רב סעדיה גאון חייב אדם להקדים פרנסתו לכל אדם ואינו חייב לתת צדקה עד שיהיה לו פרנסתו שנאמר וחי אחיך עמך, חייך קודמין לחיי אחיך. האיש שמרויח פרנסתו כבעל בית חשוב שאוכל כראוי לחם ובשר ותבשילין ולובש ומכסה א"ע כראוי וודאי דחייב בצדקה מעשר או חומש מפרנסתו.

Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 10a (cf. Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 68a)

Translation Original
Rabbi Yeshoshua ben Korcha says: Anyone who averts his eyes from tzedakah is like one who worships idolatry. It is written here: "Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ['The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching']…" (Deuteronomy 15:9), and it is written there: "Base people have gone out [from among you and subverted the inhabitants of their town]..." (Deuteronomy 13:14); just as there it is idolatry, so here it is idolatry. [Soncino translation]
רבי יהושע בן קרחה אומר: כל המעלים עיניו מן הצדקה - כאילו עובד עבודת כוכבים, כתיב הכא:(דברים טו) השמר לך פן יהיה דבר עם לבבך בליעל, וכתיב התם: (דברים יג) יצאו אנשים בני בליעל, מה להלן עבודת כוכבים, אף כאן עבודת כוכבים.

Tur, Yoreh De'ah 251a

Translation Original
And one is obligated to prioritize feeding the hungry over clothing the naked, so the hungry won't die of starvation.
וחייב להקדים להאכילֹ הרעב מלכסות הערום שלא ימות הרעב ברעב.

To whom should I give tzedakah?

Tsdosefta, Gittin 3:13

Translation Original
A city that has Jews and non-Jew, the communal tzedakah-organizers collect from Jews and non-Jews for the sake of the ways of peace, and support poor non-Jews along with poor Jews for the sake of the ways of peace.
עיר שיש בה ישראל וגוים הפרנסין גובין מישראל ומגוים מפני דרכי שלום מפרנסין עניי גוים עם עניי ישראל מפני דרכי שלום.

Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 71a

Translation Original
R. Joseph learnt: If you lend money to any of my people that are poor with you: [this teaches, if the choice lies between] a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich the poor takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town the poor of your own town have prior rights. [Soncino translation]
דתני רב יוסף (שמות כ"ב) אם כסף תלוה את עמי את העני עמך, עמי ונכרי - עמי קודם, עני ועשיר - עני קודם, ענייך ועניי עירך - ענייך קודמין, עניי עירך ועניי עיר אחרת - עניי עירך קודמין.

Rambam, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:7

Translation Original
It is forbidden to turn away a poor person who requests empty-handed. Even if you give only a single dried fig, as it says, "Do not let the downtrodden turn away disappointed" (Psalms 74:21).
ואסור להחזיר את העני ששאל ריקם ואפילו אתה נותן לו גרוגרת אחת שנאמר: "אל ישוב דך נכלם" (תהילים עד:כא)

Mapah on Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 251:3

Translation Original
A person's own livelihood comes before anyone else and he has no duty to give tzedakah until he has his own income. Next comes supporting his parents if they are poor, and they preceded his [grown] children. Next his [grown] children, and they precede his siblings, and they precede the rest of his relatives, and his relatives precede his neighbors, and neighbors precede the people of his city, and the people of his city precede the people of another city.
פרנסת עצמו קודמת לכל אדם, ואינו חייב לתת צדקה עד שיהיה לו פרנסתו ואח’כ יקדים פרנסת אביו ואמו, אם הם עניים, והם קודמים לפרנסת בניו. ואחר כך בניו, והם קודמים לאחיו, והם קודמים לשאר קרובים, והקרובים קודמים לשכיניו, ושכיניו לאנשי עירו, ואנשי עירו לעיר אחרת.

Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De'ah 251:4

Translation Original
We have already explained in another place that the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, stating that one is not obligated to give tzedakah until he has earned enough to support himself, deals only with fixed gifts such as tithes. Everyone – even a poor person who is sustained by tzedakah – is obligated to fulfill the basic mitzvah of tzedakah by giving at least a third of a shekel each year. Now there is something fundamental about the details of the laws above that troubles me deeply. For if we explain the texts that I have cited according to their simple meaning – that certain groups are prior to others – they imply that [one may distribute the entirety of one’s tzedakah money to one group within the established hierarchy] and need not give at all to those who fall outside of that particular group. But it is well known that every wealthy person has many more relatives who are poor, and how much more is that true for people whose tzedakah funds are scant! And if this is the case, poor people without wealthy relatives will die of starvation. Now how is it possible to say this? Therefore, in my humble opinion, the explanation of [tzedakah priorities] is as follows: Certainly every person, whether of modest or significant means, is obligated to give a portion of his [or her] tzedakah money to needy people who are not relatives. But to his [or her] poor relatives, he [or she] should give a greater amount than is given to those who are not related. And so on along the ladder of prioritie0. Regarding that which is stated that a person’s own welfare comes first, if that is explained according to its plain meaning, then most people would be exempt from the mitzvah of tzedakah altogether, excepting the one-third shekel per year. If only it were the case that most Jews could earn enough to meet their needs! But [seeing that they do not], should all but the wealthiest be exempt from tzedakah?! And in places where there are no wealthy residents, should people be left to starve? How is it possible to say this? Nor do people act this way. [translation by Rabbi David Rosenn, AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps]