The first area of detail that we will focus on is who does one give tzedaka to. There are several issues involved here. The first is who qualifies as a poor person. The second is the question of poor people who for one reason or another do not qualify to receive charity. The third is who takes precedence when one has the opportunity to give to many people.

Regarding who qualifies as a poor person, the gemara in Ketubot 67a and other places notes that one who has less than 200 <I>zuz</I> (an ancient coin) is considered to be poor and thus is eligible to receive tzedaka. The importance of this is that one who is ineligible to receive such funds is considered to have stolen if he does accept them, and the one who gave the funds is not considered to have fulfilled his obligation to give. The Shiltei Giborim on that gemara points out that such a sum was the poverty line in the times of the gemara, but we obviously must re-evaluate that figure in each generation and in each society.

The bigger issue is those people who, while indeed poor, have various factors working against them in this regard. The first is a Jew who is a sinner. The Yere'im (quoted by Semag Aseh 162)) points out that one does not have to give to a Jew who has violated a Torah-mandated law (d'oraita). The Tur (Y.D. 251) codifies this and explains that since the commandment for tzedaka comes from the verse of "your brother shall live with you (i.e. you should support him)," there fore there is no obligation to support one who has ceased to act as a brother in the sense of no longer following the commandments. This idea is highlighted by the Yere'im (#155), who states that this verse contains the commandment to "be a brother," which he defines as acting in a fraternal manner via clothing and feeding those Jews who are less fortunate. Thus, a Jew who undermines that aspect of himself has effectively removed himself from being a part of this commandment. The Beit Yoseif ad loc cites the Semak, who notes that a pauper who sins for the purpose of angering Hashem (l'hach'is) may not receive tzedaka until he repents, and the Beit Yoseif himself feels that there is actually a prohibition in giving to such a person. The Shach refines this law a bit further. Given the fact that no one is perfect, and we are even told that "there is no righteous man in the land who does good and does not sin" (Kohelet 7:20), how would there ever be a person that we could give charity to? Thus, says Shach, this law is referring to a person who has sinned repeatedly to satisfy his desire for that particular act (mumar l'teyavon). However, one who sins once or twice is still considered to be a brother and can receive tzedaka.

What about non-Jews? This question goes right to the heart of the reason for this mitzva (see last week's Chabura). Are we commanded to give charity merely to make ourselves better people, or is the commandment aimed at supporting our Jewish brethren to the exclusion of others? Should we callously walk past beggars on the streets of New York because they are "not one of ours"? While the opportunity cost of giving to a non-Jew is not giving that money to a Jew, is that a valid reason to not give? Gittin 61a states that we do give to non-Jewish paupers because of "darchei shalom," namely that we want to keep peace between ourselves and the nations that surround us. Rambam (Hil. Matnot Aniyim 7) codifies this, stating that we provide for non-Jewish paupers along with Jewish ones, and phrasing that echoes the gemara and is the source of the real controversy involved in this issue. The Mahari Korkos suggests that it is possible that we only give to non-Jews when the come to us together with Jews, and thus to keep the peace we give to everyone present. However, he notes the view of Ran that we give non-Jews even when they come to us by themselves. The GR"A sees Rambam as agreeing with the Mordechai (and Mahari Korkos) in saying that we only giver to non-Jews if they come together with Jews, as to not do so would create animosity.

Rav Yoseif Kapach, in his footnotes to Rambam's code, notes that only the Gabbai Tzedaka (one charged with distributing the funds) has to give to non-Jews, a law that he infers from the Tosefta in Pe'ah. However, a regular Jew may not give to a non-Jew at all due to the prohibition of "lo techanem," who forbids us from establishing friendly relations with the other nations (see Chabura on lo techanem). In support, he cites the Maharitatz, who also believes that non-Jews receive tzedaka only when they come with Jews. The Tur (Y.D. 251) rules that we do give to non-Jews, and the Mor U'Ketziah notes that if we do not know if a person is Jewish or not, we may run a background check before giving to him. The importance of this view is that we do not invoke "darchei shalom" until we know that we need to invoke it ( namely that the person is, in fact, a non-Jew).

On the issue of background checks we get into the very prevalent issue of credibility. How do we know that a person is poor just because they say that they are? Is every person with a plastic letter or a beat-up Chevrolet worthy of charity? Harsh as that question sounds, it is a very common one brought about by the unfortunate state of affairs in which an occasional impostor is exposed posing as a beggar so as to earn some spare cash. Can we let one fly ruin the ointment? Are we allowed to demand proof from those who ask for money? While I have yet to locate recent responsa or articles on this topic, I will state the basic law here. The gemara in Bava Batra records a debate between the Tanna Kama and Rabi Yehuda about this issue. The Tanna Kama saying that we can check up on a person who asks for food, but if a person claims that he needs clothing we give it to him immediately, and Rabi Yehuda holds the reverse. Rambam and those who follow him all rule according to Rabi Yehuda, namely that if a person asks for food we believe him, while if he asks for clothing we are allowed to investigate his financial status before giving. As far as identifying modern-say "cheaters," I would merely suggest that we be careful to not rely on the excuse of "how do I know who is for real?" when we actually mean to say "I don't want to give."

The final issue in this section is the question of priority. There are a few factors that one must take into account here. The Medrash tells us that one gives to his relatives first, then to the poor in his town, and finally to the poor from other towns. Within each of those levels, there are other issues that must be worked out. Is one allowed to support his children whom he legally no longer has to support by giving them tzedaka funds? The poskim are more or less split on this issue. Even further, what constitutes a relative? Do second cousins count? The Chacham Tzvi (#90) states that the closer a relative, the higher on the scale they are in terms of preferential treatment. The only qualification that I have found so far is that the Pitchei Teshuva quotes the Maharam Ziskind, who states that one's wives relatives fall into the category of "the poor of your city" and not the category of poor relatives.

The next set of factors relies on our usual hierarchy when it comes to issues of status - Kohein before Levi, Levi before Yisrael, and so on. The Shiltei HaGibborim notes that while we generally try to follow this order, if a person who is lower down on the scale is a Torah scholar (Talmid Chacham), then he takes priority over all others. The Be'er Heitev and the Shemesh Tzedek note that this factor is limited by the first set of factor, namely that a Talmid Chacham from another city would not take priority over a simple pauper of one's own town.

Finally, we should note an interesting view brought down by the Beit Yoseif. He cites the Maharik, who cites the Tashbetz, who claims that if one has the opportunity to give to a shul and to give to an individual, they should take the communal option and give to the shul first. However, if the poor people in question are sick, then they should receive the money first.


How much is one obligated to give? Ketubot 67a says that one may not give more than twenty percent of what they have. This law is learned out from Yaakov, who said "aser a'asrenu" - he would give one-tenth to Hashem. From the fact that he used a double language in making this statement, we learn that one should give up to two-tenths, or twenty percent, of his wealth. This amount is considered to be the best form of the mitzva, while giving one-tenth, the familiar "ma'aser" is regarded as being the average way of fulfilling this mitzva. Less than one-tenth is considered to be ungenerous, and one who gives less than one-third of a shekel per year (I am unsure of what this would be nowadays) has not fulfilled the mitzva at all.

There is a problem with this entire law. The first mishna in Pe'ah list "acts of kindness" as one of the things which have no measurement. If this is true, how can we put a cap on the amount that one has to give? Rambam explains that while "acts of kindness" in general are unlimited, when these actions involve one's money a conflict arises between that law and the law that one may not spend all of his money to fulfill the commandments. The result of this clash is the creation of a maximum amount that one may donate.

The Tur has an interesting formulation (Y.D. 247, 249). He states that one should give as much as possible for them, and then says that one should give as much as possible up to twenty percent. He then brings down the Yerushalmi, which states that one should give twenty percent of what they have the first time that they give, and after that one only has to give twenty percent of his profits. The Mor U'Ketziah states that the first ten percent is the main thing, and if that is not enough for the paupers, then a person should continue giving up until twenty percent. Ramo offers a split in the law, saying that the Gabbaim should give a poor person whatever he needs, while an individual who is giving only has to give what he is capable of giving, after which point he should inform the Gabbai that there is a needy person in town.


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