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The Jewish Ethicist: Riches to Rags

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

Should I give charity to a formerly wealthy person?

Q. A formerly wealthy family in our congregation has fallen on hard times. Is it appropriate to dip into our charity funds, which are already stretched thin, to help them?

A. When the Torah tells us to be generous in giving charity, it uses an interesting expression: "If there should be a needy person from among your brethren," we should provide him "enough for his lack" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). The Torah does not refer to a poor person, but to a needy one, and states that our help should be according to his lack.

From the usage of this terminology our tradition learns that each person deserves help according to his or her needs. "Enough for his lack -- you are commanded to support him, not to enrich him [in excess of his needs]; enough for his lack -- even a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him." (1)

This surprising passage tells us that if a person is accustomed to live in high style, then helping him maintain his accustomed habits is a valid instance of giving charity. The passage goes on to state that Hillel, one of the greatest sages of all time, indeed helped a poor man from a distinguished family by providing him with a horse and a servant.

The commentaries give two reasons for this rule. First of all, it is a great embarrassment for a person accustomed to wealth and style to suddenly appear in public like a poor person. Second of all, once a person becomes accustomed to luxuries, then living without them may actually be a source of distress.

Yet paradoxically, Jewish law states that a person should preferably suffer privation rather than be dependent on public support. (2) This is certainly not fulfilled if others are providing him with luxuries!

Practically speaking, the way in which these two sources are reconciled is for individuals of comparable means to provide the once-wealthy with a "soft landing." For a distinguished person to suddenly appear without the trappings of wealth is an unbearable embarrassment; for him or her to suddenly dispense with accustomed habits is a significant distress. Yet ultimately each family has to learn to live within its independent means, and the role of the community is to ease the transition period.

Another reason for extending aid to someone in this situation is that making a sudden adjustment is not only embarrassing and painful, it can also be expensive. Loss of income often obliges people to sell assets, but we know that having to sell assets in a hurry may result in a substantial loss, both because of a lack of liquidity for many high-value items (houses, businesses, works of art) and also because buyers may take advantage of a seller in distress. Community support can give a person the breathing space required to obtain a reasonable price for assets, and thus ultimately save money.

Therefore, when a family of means suddenly experiences a loss of income, the family has to accept the fact that they will have to adjust their style of living to one appropriate to their new status. However, when possible it is proper and desirable for other families of comparable standing to help them in the adjustment process, and provide a "soft landing."

Priority should be given to the following issues:

1. Changes in lifestyle that involve a significant embarrassment. For example, if a person belongs to some honorable committee or society which involves a monetary obligation, other members should try to help him stay on until his departure can be arranged in a dignified way.

2. Changes in lifestyle that involve significant distress. Many people live without household help, but to someone accustomed to having a cleaning lady doing suddenly without one can lead to the collapse of household routine. The family should be helped to gradually reach the state where this necessity becomes a luxury they can do without.

3. Any case where sudden change involves a loss. For example: forcing children to change schools in mid-year; forcing someone to sell assets for less than their value.

There is also an additional consideration. In general, wealthy families have contributed a great deal to the community. Helping them in their time of need is not only a way of fulfilling the commandment of giving charity but is also a way of showing gratitude for the help they provided the community over the years.

As in all cases of charitable giving, loans are preferable to outright gifts. And discretion is of the utmost important. Parlor meetings for the benefit of a "fallen family" should not mention names. Often the impression that "everybody knows" is mistaken, and even if it is true there is additional embarrassment at having the family's name mentioned in such circumstances.

(1) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 67b (2) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah255

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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.

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