Introduction: There is an ancient Jewish tradition to give 10-20 percent of one's income to tzedakah; moreover, there are special cases or emergencies when one gives more than the usual percentage. With the exception of these cases, our sages say that a person should not give more than 20 percent of his income to tzedekah, lest he impoverish himself and thereby become dependent on other people for his support. The Chofetz Chaim, in his book "Loving Kindness," mentions that this limitation does not apply to an extremely wealthy person, and he lists other exceptions, as well. (If you have questions regarding your own tzedakah giving, please consult with a rabbi.)
According to Jewish tradition, we are to give tzedakah not only with love and sensitivity, but also with wisdom and common sense. We should therefore give thought to the particular needs of the recepient, and to figure out the best and most sensitive way to meet these needs. For example, if you are providing food for a needy individual, it would be wise to find out if this individual has any dietary restrictions.
There may also be occasions when our wisdom and common sense will tell us not to give someone too much tzedekah, and Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer discusses this issue in his book, "The Tzedakah Treasury" (ArtScroll). He once requested from Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, a noted authority on "halacha" (Torah law), to give him some advice on how to develop a proper approach to the distribution of tzedakah. Instead of citing a particular halacha, Rabbi Feinstein responded with the following story:
There was a wealthy Jewish man who was known for his generosity in giving tzedakah, and he was once approached in an aggressive manner by a Jewish man in need. The philanthropist was moved by the needy man's story and gave a very large gift, far more than he usually gave. The needy man, however, was not satisfied and continued to badger the donor for an even larger gift. The philanthropist stood firm and refused to add to his already generous gift. Finally, the needy man was so exasperated that he screamed at the rich man and said: "You are an achzor - a cold-hearted, cruel person!" Calmly, the kind-hearted philanthropist responded, "You are so right, my friend! I am an achzor; and if anyone should be happy about it, it should be you! Because, if I were not 'cruel,' then I would have already given all of my money away to the poor man who solicited me just before you came, and I would have had nothing left over to contribute to your cause!"
What can we learn from this story? We are custodians of the resources that Hashem - the Compassionate One - has placed in our possessions, and this story serves as a reminder that we must share these resources with wisdom and common sense.
There is another related issue that we need to mention: If one knows for sure that someone asking for tzedakah is not truly in need, then we do not give tzedekah to such a person. But when in doubt, it is better to err on the side of compassion. For Jewish Tradition teaches that it is better to risk giving to an undeserving person than to risk not giving to a deserving person. The honest people should not have to suffer because of those who are dishonest.
There are some needy individuals who are overly demanding, and instead of taking some steps to improve their situation when they have the potential to do so, they prefer to be passive. Letting such individuals know that there are limits to our giving, whether it be on a material or an emotional level, may be the greatest kindness we can do for them! For each human being, regardless of his life challenges, is created in the image of the Divine Giver; thus, each human being has the inner capacity to give to others. It is therefore not healthy emotionally and spiritually for any person to constantly be a "taker." If through mistaken compassion, we encourage these overdemanding people to remain "takers" and thereby strengthen their passive role when they have the potential to help themselves, we are doing them a disservice. It is therefore the highest form of monetary tzedekah to help needy individuals to find a livelihood or to give them a grant for doing meaningful work, so that they can become givers of monetary tzedekah to others. And it is the highest form of emotional tzedakah to help depressed individuals to discover their inner sources of strength, so that they can become givers of emotional tzedakah to others. We also have to have patience, however, and remember that helping people to change and grow is a process, and one should not expect instant success. When we remember how hard it is for us to change some of our own weaknesses, we can be more understanding and patient with others.
In general, we should listen to each other's pain in a non-judgmental way, and we should show empathy and understanding for each other's problems. Nevertheless, we should not encourage each other to indulge in self-pity and "kvetching" . a Yiddish term for "whining." Deep down, we know that constant self-pity and kvetching is not helpful, and we should therefore avoid this self-defeating tendency.
There are some people who have had a "deprived childhood" and who spend the rest of their lives wallowing in self-pity. They are bitter and angry at life, and they take their "revenge" by constantly kvetching to others. There are others who have had a deprived childhood who decide to take a different kind of "revenge." They decide to fight back by becoming givers! Instead of kvetching to others, they ask good people to help them develop new resources which will enable them to give to others. Thank God, I have had the privilege of knowing such courageous and strong individuals. They did not allow their past suffering to defeat them; instead, they used the insights they gained from their suffering to become wiser and more compassionate individuals. In this way, they were able to help others who had similar problems.
The Jewish people have experienced much suffering, perhaps more than any other people. We have experienced exile, persecution, and attempts to annihilate us which greatly diminished our numbers. In addition, there were attempts to destroy our spiritual heritage and to replace it with Christianity or another religion. Yet through faith in the God of history, and through fullfilling the mitzvos of our beloved Torah, we developed communities which were known for their Torah wisdom, compassion, and tzedakah. Instead of wallowing in self-pity after each expulsion or attempted genocide, we began the difficult process of rebuilding our shattered people, physically and spiritually. We are a stubborn people that refuses to be defeated by suffering and death. We choose life again and again, and this may be a reason why the Compassionate One chose us to bring life-giving light to all humankind through the power of our own example.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See Below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. Further study of Torah insights and laws regarding tzedekah can help one to develop the wisdom to know when to apply the above teachings. In addition, one needs to be honest with one's self and make sure that one's desire to impose a limit on tzedekah in certain situations is not due to a trace of stinginess within one's self. For further study on this theme, see Letter 74 of our series titled "Avoiding Dependency." You can also find this letter in our new Hazon archives which appears on our website:
2. The Steipler Gaon related that when, as a young man, he came to the city of Vilna, he asked Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, a leading sage of the generation, the following question: "When I go out to the synagogue here, there are many poor people sitting outside and begging. Am I obligated to respond to entreaties of every one of these beggars? Due to my very tight financial situation, this would be very difficult." Rav Chaim Ozer responded: "When I lived in a small town before I came to live in Vilna, I was very scrupulous to cheerfully greet every person I met on the street. But since I came to Vilna I stopped this practice, because in such a big city it's impossible to greet everyone. The same applies to tzedakah; in a big city you simply cannot give to everyone."
3. The tradition of tithing
is known in Hebrew as "Maaser Kesafim." There is an English book titled "Maaser
Kesafim" (Editor: Professor Cyril Domb) which discusses the laws of tithing
one's earnings for tzedakah. It is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com
. The tradition of tithing is also
discussed in the book, "The Tzedakah Treasury" by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer,
which is published by ArtScroll: www.artscroll.com
. This book contains a wonderful
anthology of Torah teachings, laws, and stories regarding tzedakah. Some of the
information in the above letter has been adapted from "The Tzedakah Treasury" -
courtesy of the copyright holder, ArtScroll/Mesorah.
Hazon - Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/