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Corona – giving Tzedakah where it hurts

Nissan 5780 | April 2020

Tzedaka priorities: A guide to giving when it hurts

The most difficult dilemmas we face often involve choosing between one type of good and another. Now and for the foreseeable future, the need for tzedaka (charitable giving) seems greater than what we can provide. Though there are no clear-cut answers, a review of some basic laws of charity can guide each of us as we make these decisions.

‘If there is a destitute person from one of your brethren in one of your gates in your land that the Lord your God gives to you, do not harden your heart and do not clench your hand from your destitute brother; you shall surely open your hand to him…’ Devarim (15, 7-8)

Setting Personal Priorities: Who comes first?

Based on these verses, Rav Yosef (TB Bava Metzia 71a) explains that the poor of “your brethren” – the Jewish people – take precedence over others, and the poor of “your gates” – your city – take precedence over other cities. Shulchan Aruch codifies the priorities – family first, then your city, then other cities. He adds that the poor in Israel take precedence over those outside Israel. (YD 251: 3) Rema specifies that one’s neighbors take precedence over the city in general. While some may see these priorities as promoting a negative, exclusive tribalism, it seems that they were designed to encourage communal responsibility and ensure that resources are properly allocated by people closest to those in need.

The role of community

Halachically and traditionally communities are meant to have a gabbai tzedaka – an almoner – who kept tabs on everyone’s needs and allocated funds. These days communities it may be a rabbi or committee that fills this role, but all too often there is no central body ensuring that no one falls through the cracks. The threat is even greater in places where there is no central synagogue or no clear communal leadership. These more amorphous communities should look for creative ways to gather information and resources to reach out to those in need.

When facing financial insecurity

When discussing priorities Rema stresses, “One’s own livelihood comes before everyone else.” Individuals and families should honestly assess their ability to give. One who is considered “poor” is exempt from most aspects of tzedaka. Those who have been laid off, furloughed, or cut back should look for other ways to contribute at this time; they may not risk their own financial stability. Earlier this year Rabbanit Surale Rosen examined tzedaka options beyond giving money. Everyone has something to offer those in need, whether it’s volunteering time, skills, connections, or resources.

Handout, or hand-up?

Tzedaka is not only prioritized based on proximity. There is also a hierarchy of types of giving. While we cannot neglect traditional charitable organizations that feed and clothe the poor and sick, there are also new needs cropping up. Businesses that were strong before the pandemic, and that can return to being profitable in the aftermath are struggling NOW. Many have come up with new services – restaurants and stores offer delivery, art studios sell kits to make at home, fitness instructors and arts teachers sell online tutorials. Many of these businesses are just trying to stay afloat – avoid losing everything so they have something left on the other side.

Patronizing a struggling business is not merely a kindness; according to many halachic authorities it is the highest form of tzedaka. Rambam enumerates eight levels of tzedaka and explains:

“… the highest level is one who strengthens the hand of an Israelite who has slipped and gives him a gift or loan or partners with him or invents work for him to support him so that he will not be beholden to others and have to ask (for charity), as it says ‘You shall support him – the stranger and resident, and he shall live with you,’ strengthen him so he does not fall and come to need (charity).”

Taz points out that there are two ways to understand this highest form of charity. It could be that the gift, loan, or business one gives is preferable as it saves the recipient from embarrassment and allows them to retain their dignity. But Taz believes that it is really timing of the gift that sets it apart – as it prevents the person from ever reaching a state of destitution. It is much harder to get out of a hole than it is not to fall in. Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon brings the following Sifra (Behar 5), which offers a poignant illustration of the concept:

“’If your brother is brought low and his hand falters beside you, [you shall support him]’ – do not leave him to fall. Why? This is similar to a load on a donkey’s back – when it is still on his back one can grab it and set it right, if it falls to the ground even five people can’t pick it back up.”

Thinking outside the pushka

Rambam discusses giving the person business and inventing work for them to do. Part of this means helping businesses and individuals brainstorm and implement ways to stay profitable in this new, hopefully temporary, reality. But the next step means patronizing these new ventures. At a time when many of us want to cut back on our expenses, it is important that those who are able support these enterprises. This support could be anything from hiring someone to do work in your house, commissioning an artist for a piece, or even ordering in from your neighbor’s restaurant even though you’re happy to cook that night.

Calculating ma’aser

Those people who are careful to practice ma’aser kesafim, to tithe their earnings, may wonder if they can consider these expenses as part of their ma’aser. If one wishes to and can afford to patronize these people without using their ma’aser money, they certainly may. But if one would not use these businesses otherwise, it is permissible to take the extra money used from ma’aser.

How can we use ma’aser money to purchase something that benefits us? HaRav HaDayan Yaakov Yeshaya Blau (Tzedaka u’Mishpat Chapter 1 note 85) explains that when one buys an item or uses a service as a means of giving tzedaka they can calculate the amount that is ma’aser by deducting the what they would have paid for that benefit from the amount they actually did pay. If one would have paid 40 NIS for an arts and crafts kit for their kids and instead spent 100 NIS ordering an activity their ma’aser would be 60 NIS. If one specifically orders from a struggling restaurant – the difference between the cost and what they would have paid for dinner can be taken from ma’aser.

This is obviously subjective as some people will calculate the cost of ingredients, some will factor in the time spent preparing, and others the cost of a cheaper take-out. Halachic authorities who suggest this line of reasoning encourage people to be honest with themselves. (Igrot Moshe OC IV:76, Emet l’Yaakov YD 249) Ultimately, if you are spending money you would not have spent to provide business for someone who could use the help you are truly providing tzedaka – you have stretched out your hand to steady your sister or brother, as they struggle to carry their load you show them they are not alone, and help them shoulder the weight so that they may soon stand tall once again.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.