The Jewish Ethicist: Priority in Charitable Giving
Since our resources are limited, we can't help everyone in the world. Who do we help first?
Q. Our community has a charity fund, but there are many opinions on how we should distribute them. Some say we should focus on members of our congregation, while others go so far as to favor aid to developing nations. What does Jewish tradition state?
A. Jewish law recognizes that any needy person who lives in peaceful coexistence with us is a worthy charity recipient. The Talmud teaches that we should help support the poor even outside our own community, because of the "ways of peace". (1)
At the same time, the vast number of needy people and our limited resources mean that we have to establish priorities. Our Sages learn that the language of the Torah itself contains the key to these priorities.
"When there will be a needy person from among your brethren, in one of your gates in your land that the Lord your God has given you, don't harden your heart and don't close your hand from your needy brother. Surely open your hand and lend him according to his need that is lacking to him" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
Rashi's commentary points out that the description of the poor person uses the relatively unusual word "needy," indicating that the neediest individuals come first. And the mention of "your gates" indicates that the poor of your city precede those from other cities.
A similar inference is made from a verse in Exodus (22:24). "When you lend to my people, to the poor among you, don't dun him for the debt; don't impose usury." As Rashi explains, this teaches that "my people" precede members of other nations, while the word "poor" shows that a poor person precedes a better off one, even though even a wealthy person may sometimes be in need of temporary aid. "Among you" -- the poor of your city come before those of other places.
From both sources we can see the special value of giving loans, rather than outright gifts. Jewish law considers loans as generally the highest form of charity. Among the advantages of loans: they don't embarrass the recipient; they represent a "vote of confidence" that the person will eventually establish himself; and they don't cultivate dependency to the same extent as gifts do. Of course there are many cases where loans are impractical, but the above verses do remind us of their special value when applicable.
One reason why "charity begins at home" is a practical one. Since our resources are limited, we can't reasonably help everyone in the world, so we might as well start with the people who are closest to us, whose needs we can most easily evaluate, and who are most likely to be able to reciprocate the need as people's fortunes are subject to vicissitudes. The Talmud learns from the same passage in Deuteronomy that "Poverty is a turning wheel" -- today's donor may be tomorrow's recipient. (2)
But there is also a deeper reason to favor those close to us. In many places we find that the commandment of charity is carried out in a way which cultivates our feeling of generosity. This is best done with the people closest to us. A similar message is found in the verse "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). While it would have been enough to command "Love your neighbor," the addition "as yourself" reminds us that a person who doesn't love himself will find it hard to love his neighbor. Likewise, a person who doesn't show genuine concern for members of his own community will find it hard to sustain feelings of concern beyond it. So the laws of charity mandate a set of "concentric circles" of concern.
So for a community charity fund, the main emphasis in charitable giving should be on the local community, and for cases of real deprivation. When congregation members are in significant need they should have priority over outsiders. Some lesser but still meaningful amount should also be earmarked for other needy individuals in your area and for cases of extreme deprivation beyond, so that we can also promote the ways of peace.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Gittin 59b. (2) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 151b
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