The Eight Levels of Charity
by Avi Lazerson
We, Jewish souls, are known as merciful people through out the ages. A good part of Jewish life, personal and communal, revolves around the concept of giving and helping. The word charity is shallow when it comes to describing the Jewish idea of "tzedakah". Tzedakah does not mean charity; it means righteousness.
Whereas the word charity indicates giving alms to the poor, the concept of tzedakah requires it. Tzedakah is not just a good act that is the result of a good heart, but an obligation that exists irregardless of the feelings generated between the giver and the position of the receiver.
Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, known as the Rambam, who lived about a thousand years ago codified the various levels of giving in his famous book, the Mishne Torah.
The highest level of tzedakah is he who helps his friend who is experiencing difficult financial times. He either gives him a present, a loan or makes him a partner in order that he should not become poor and dependent on charitable alms. Also included in this level is that finding for him suitable employment before he becomes poor. Here is the highest level of giving - helping a person maintain himself in order that he should not fall financially and become indigent.
(Note: This is really interesting since the world does not consider the act of charity in helping a person unless he is impoverished. Yet the Jewish view is that helping him maintain his financial status quo is the highest form of giving.)
The level below that is one who gives in secrecy to a poor person without either the poor person knowing who gave or the rich man knowing who benefited. This is similar to one who gives to a fund that is administered by known righteous individuals. Giving in this fashion is considered giving for the sake of the mitzvah (commandment) of tzedakah, which is a lofty level in the service of G-d.
The level below this is one in which the giver knows the receiver, but the recipient does not know the identity of the giver. This is the manner in which great Rabbis in the past would act; they would come at night and leave a parcel of food or money at the door of the poor. This is the manner which one should utilize for giving if the person (persons) in charge of the charity funds are not acting with complete honesty and impartiality.
A lesser level than this is that the impoverished person knows the identity of the giver, but the giver does not know the identity of the poor person. In early times, the pious would tie money in small purses to the back of their garments. The poor people would come and take this money, (which they knew was meant for them) from the wealthy patron. In this manner, the poor person was spared the embarrassment of taking.
An even lower level is one who gives before he is asked. Sensing the situation of the other person, he sympathetically alleviates the discomfort of the poor by not causing them to ask for money.
The level lower than that is giving upon being asked to give. Note that this is the level upon which we are accustomed to act. We may feel righteous about giving, certainly a good deed is done by giving, but notice how many higher levels of giving there are.
Less than this is one who gives, but gives less than is proper but at least he gives with a happy face. A person should always strive to give money with a happy heart, encouraging words, and expressing understanding of the poor person's plight.
Less than this is one who gives, but gives with a mean or hard look on their face.
When we give to those who are in need, we are doing G-d's work. It is really G-d's job to feed and clothe the inhabitants of the world. When we do G-d's work, He looks down upon us favorably and helps us in our daily life. Many of the great Rabbis of the past have made it a habit to always give money to charity before praying. This gives added insurance that their prayers will be answered.
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from the October 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine