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The Jewish Ethicist: Charitable Worth

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

How can I make the most effective use of my charity dollar?

Q. Is it appropriate to establish rigid criteria for charitable giving? AS

A. Deciding to whom to give charity is never easy. No one wants to seem hard-hearted and demand that a needy person prepare a thorough dossier before we give a token amount. Yet at the same time we want to avoid giving to people who are not truly needy, so as to conserve our budgets and to avoid encouraging dependency.

Even within Jewish tradition, we find seemingly contradictory sources on this question. On the one hand, there seems to be a punctilious insistence on adherence to criteria. For example, Jewish law generally requires that charity funds be dispensed to needy individuals only on the basis of a committee of at least three individuals, to ensure equitable distribution. And Jewish law fixes strict criterion for which individuals are eligible for different kinds of charity, such as what duration of residence gives a person the preferred status of a city resident, as opposed to a wayfarer.

Yet beside these we find other sources suggesting that it is not appropriate to be too picayune. Here's a straightforward example: "Someone who comes and says, ‘Feed me', there is no need to check if he is a cheat, rather he should be fed immediately."

But there are far more extreme examples. For example, the Talmud tells of the renowned sage Mar Ukva, who used to send every year a substantial amount of money to a poor person in his neighborhood. One year the person who brought the money reported back to Mar Ukva that his donations were no longer needed, as he saw that the recipient was accustomed to drink expensive wine. Instead of bemoaning his wasted donations, Mar Ukva's response was, "I didn't know that he was accustomed to such luxuries -- double the donation!"

The Talmud also states, "We should be grateful for the cheaters. Otherwise, anytime a needy person requested charity and a person failed to give he would be immediately punished." In this saying, the dishonesty of the cheaters is viewed as a kind of ethical counterbalance to the stinginess of the givers!

The resolution of this paradox is very simple. A public charity fund needs to be scrupulously regulated to avoid any waste and any inequity. Only in the urgent case of a starving person should they distribute resources without a thorough process.

But a private individual should not be overly judgmental in giving small amounts of charity. After all, the Creator provides for all of His creatures, even those who don't appear to us to be the most worthy.

Rav Yehuda Amital tells the story of a Jewish businessman who used to go regularly to his rebbe to receive a blessing. His business flourished, enabling him to give charity to the rebbe's Torah institutions. This relationship continued for a period of years. One time the businessman arrived at his rebbe's home and was told that the rebbe was out of town. "He's gone to visit his rebbe!"

The businessman thought to himself, if my rebbe has his own rebbe, then certainly the greater rebbe will bring a greater blessing! From then on he began to go the rebbe's rebbe for a blessing; but instead of succeeding more, his business began to fail. After a long stretch of bad luck, he asked his new rebbe why his business was faltering, at the same time revealing how he came to be attached to the new master.

The rebbe answered very simply: "When you weren't too picky about which rebbe you gave charity to, God wasn't too picky about who he granted wealth to. But when you started to ask perhaps there is someone else more worthy to give charity to, then the Holy One began to ask Himself, perhaps there is someone else more worthy to be blessed with wealth!"

A public charity fund, which requires the full confidence of the community, should have consistent and equitable criteria for the disbursement of funds. Individuals should be particularly generous in giving donations to such organized charities.

But we private individual shouldn't count pennies in our charity budgets. At least a minimal amount should be willingly given to individuals who credibly seem to be in need of a little help, even if we're not a hundred percent sure and even if we know there are others even more needy. Although we may not have the infinite resources of the Creator, we should emulate His generosity to the best of our ability.

SOURCES: Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 256:3, 256:5, 251:10. Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 67b. Jerusalem Talmud Peah 8:8.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

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