6. Interpersonal Responsibilities - Part 2.
The nuts and bolts of doing kindness for others.
The Torah instructs us to emulate God. Just as God provides people with their needs, visits the sick, and consoles the mourners, so should we.2 Interestingly, the Talmud points to acts of kindness (chesed) as one of the intrinsic signs that someone is Jewish.3 In other words, chesed is part of the metaphysical DNA of the Jewish nation, passed down from our ancestor Abraham.
Maimonides wrote, "A person should praise his friends and be concerned about their finances, just as he is concerned about his own esteem and finances."4 In other words, not only must he refrain from causing pain to others, but also he must also actively benefit them.
Chesed can come in many forms. For example, if you see someone struggling to carry something heavy, and he is unable to proceed by himself, you are required to assist him.5 If someone's car has broken down, you should stop and help out however you can. Even if you have a busy schedule, you'll get a great feeling – and God will "feel really good" about your helping to care for His children.
Sometimes, a small kindness can have a big impact.6 Giving someone a word of encouragement is a great chesed opportunity.
In general, we should smile and greet everyone with an upbeat demeanor.7 You might be lightening their load of problems. A simple "Good morning" to the clerk can put their day on the right track, which in turn can affect hundreds of other people.
On the converse, going around grumpy is causing damage to the public.8 Just because you're a having a rough day doesn't entitle you to impose your misery on others.
There is nothing quite as unsettling as not having a home to rest in. The Torah relates that Abraham was experiencing Divine revelation, when he suddenly stopped talking with God in order to welcome some traveling strangers.9 From here we see that hosting guests is even greater than welcoming the Divine Presence!10
Abraham built his home with an entrance on all four sides, to ensure that visitors from all directions would feel welcome.11 Thus the sages encourage us to (figuratively) "leave the door to your home open wide."12
One should greet guests with a welcoming smile.13 If they are hungry or thirsty or tired, their needs should be tended to immediately.14
One of the most overlooked aspects of this mitzvah is to escort the guest out.15 In certain respects, escorting a visitor is more important than hosting him in the first place,16 as this accords him respect as if he is a visiting dignitary. Your guest should be escorted at least 4 cubits (about 8 feet).17 If appropriate, make sure that he has provisions for his journey18 and that he knows exactly how to get to his next destination.
The Torah says that Abraham planted an "eshel" tree.19 These three letters, the commentators explain, is an acronym for the three great acts of hospitality performed by Abraham:
One time in 18th century Vilna (Lithuania), a man's house burned down. The great sage the Vilna Gaon explained: This man hosted guests by giving them food and drink, but he did not escort them properly. Thus he had only the first two letters of "eshel" – which spells "aish," fire.
Visiting the Sick
When Abraham was sick, he was visited by none other than God Himself.20 By visiting the sick and tending to their needs, we fulfill the mitzvahof emulating the Creator. 21
The Sages teach us that by visiting a sick person, we somewhat alleviate his ailments.22
One of the most important reasons to visit the ill is often overlooked: Seeing a patient engulfed in his illness should arouse one to pray for his recovery. In fact, anyone who visits the sick and does not pray for their recovery has not fulfilled the mitzvah.23 Ideally, you should pray for him using his Jewish name and that of his mother.24
When visiting a sick person, go in upbeat spirits so that you can share your enthusiasm with him.25
Someone in a hospital has more needs than the nursing staff can provide. Sometimes, the patient's needs are emotional (he needs a sympathetic ear), and other times physical (his pillow is not comfortable, or the room is too warm). Find out if there is anything special you can bring – e.g. reading material, etc. Try to offer something concrete: "Can I get you something?" or "Can I raise or lower the bed?"
If the patient is at home, he may need meals prepared, or someone to pick up his medications. Sometimes tidying up the home is greatly appreciated.26 If there are children in the house that need tending to, that may be the biggest help you can possibly provide.
It is especially commendable to visit an ill person who has few or no other visitors, i.e. the elderly.27
Be sensitive to the fact that the patient may not feel up to receiving guests. And be careful not to visit at a time that is difficult for him to receive visitors.28 And do not overstay your welcome. Although the patient was happy to see you, an extensive visit may be too taxing.
If visiting a patient in person is not feasible (e.g. you live in a different city), one aspect of the mitzvah can be accomplished via the telephone.29
Click the play button on the right to listen to a 3-minute audio lesson: "Why be Kind" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin.
One of the most memorable days of one's life is their wedding day. But not everyone gets to the wedding canopy so easily or smoothly. Some people are filled with anxiety and need extra emotional support. Others can't afford the steep costs of a standard wedding.
The Torah has a special mitzvah called hach'nasat kallah (lit. bringing in the bride).30
A Jewish wedding is not for the sake of the guests, but rather for the guests to gladden the bride and groom. We should joyously escort the bride and groom to the different parts of the wedding ceremony,31 and dance with them where appropriate.32 Some people perform acrobatic stunts or juggling for the new couple in order to increase their delight.
Further, we are required to provide financial assistance for those who can't afford to get married in a dignified fashion.33 This is considered one of the highest form of charity.34 Of course, when funds are being raised for a poor bride and groom, it should be done as discreetly as possible, so not to embarrass the new couple.35
Just as you would lend money to family members without interest, so too the Torah instructs us to lend money interest-free to other Jews.36 The laws of interest and of cancellation of loans during the Shmita year are discussed in the essay on Financial Laws - Part 2.
It is forbidden to lend money without proof of the loan. This is to prevent any later misunderstandings. You should either have other people witness the loan, or write up a dated promissory note attesting to the loan.37
The mitzvah to extend loans is not limited to money. Lending anything that others need is also considered a great mitzvah.38 As such, many Jewish communities have loan funds for everything from books to gardening equipment.
The Talmud says that although God is particularly fond of poor people, He does not provide all their needs, in order that the rest of the community can gain the merit of supporting them.39 This is called tzedakah, commonly translated as "charity," but more accurately meaning righteousness, since it is a basic obligation – i.e. the right thing – to give.
Providing for the needy is a great opportunity to make oneself into a giver and become more God-like.40 Thus even a pauper who is supported from charity is required to contribute to others.41
The Torah guarantees that we will not become lacking as the result of giving charity;42 on the contrary, it results in a blessing of wealth.43 Moreover, giving charity saves one from terrible divine decrees, and the Jewish people will be redeemed through the merit of tzedakah.44
How much should we give to a poor person?
On one hand, we should provide every poor person with their basic needs.
|Amazing "novelty" tzedakah box:
The Shuckling Rabbi,
created by Philip Winestone of Canada.
On the other hand, the Talmud recounts the story of a very wealthy man who suddenly became poor. The illustrious sage Hillel provided a horse and ran before him to herald his presence.45 This is particularly poignant when we consider that Hillel himself was very poor,46 yet took upon himself to provide this formerly wealthy man with amenities that Hillel himself never dreamed of!
This teaches us that wealth and poverty are not determined by the amount of a person's resources, but by their mindset. People who "feel" needy are poor, while others may feel "wealthy," despite their lack of resources.47 Consequently, when a fabulously wealthy person loses his fortune, we must take care of his needs, however outlandish.48
Of course, this only applies in the event that all the poor people have been provided with their basic necessities. And of course, this formerly-wealthy person must be weaned of his comforts and gradually acclimated to a lifestyle more befitting his new financial state.49
One of the most important aspects of giving charity is to do so with the right attitude. A warm smile and encouraging comment may be even more helpful than the money itself.50 This is especially true if we are providing directly to the recipient who is undoubtedly embarrassed to be on the receiving end. If one gives it in a grumpy manner, even if he gives a large amount, he loses the merit of the act and violates a commandment of the Torah: "And your heart shall not be grieved when you give him..."51
If at all possible, a poor person should never be turned away empty-handed. Even a token amount is still an act of giving.52
Whenever possible, one should try to give charity anonymously.53 However, if publicizing a large donation will encourage others to also give, then it should be publicized. To inspire and bring others to give tzedakah merits an even greater reward than that of the donor.54
It is often better to lend money (interest-free) than to donate to someone's needs. This way, the recipient can get back on his feet in a respectable manner and does not feel so demoralized.55
Even better is to lend money before the person becomes destitute, to prevent their financial fall and reliance on charity.
It is especially effective to provide a poor person with employment,56 which more permanently alleviates his financial stress.
With so many good needy causes, which one should you choose? While a donor can choose those causes close to his heart, here are some general guidelines:
- A needy relative takes top priority.57
- Local needs take precedence over out-of-town.58
- Needs in Israel come before those in the Diaspora.59
- Poor Torah scholars have priority over other poor people.60
- Those who need food come before those with other needs.61
- Needy women come before needy men.62
On the other hand, one should strive not to become dependent upon others. Even a distinguished scholar should find menial labor rather than become dependent upon the charity of others.63 But if one cannot subsist unless he does receive tzedakah, he should not be so proud that he hesitates to accept it.
How Much to Give?64
The Talmud describes an ironic problem of Jewish philanthropy. Generous people were giving away so much money that soon the donors themselves were in danger of needing public support! To control this, the Sages placed a limit of donating 20 percent of assets to charity.65
Standard Jewish practice is to give at least 10 percent of one's assets and income to charity.66 The Hebrew word for 10 percent is ma'aser; thus the word ma'aser is used to refer to this general obligation. A blessing of wealth is promised to anyone who observes this practice scrupulously.67
How is this percentage calculated? The first time that one is giving, he should calculate 10 percent of his present assets and give that to charity. Subsequently, he donates 10 percent of his net income.68 He can deduct all business-related expenses before calculating the 10 percent.69 But income includes wages, monetary gifts, capital gains, inheritance, interest earned, etc.70
In addition to ma'aser, there is a separate annual obligation to give a minimum of one half-shekel annually to tzedakah. Even a poor person must give this half-shekel, though he may be exempt from ma'aser.
Give Good Advice!
Are you the type of person that everyone comes to you for advice? "Which doctor should I go to?" "What stock do you think I should invest in?" "How do I grow cucumbers?"
There is a mitzvah to responsibly guide others71 to the best of your ability. Giving bad advice irresponsibly is a violation of a Torah law, especially if you stand to gain from providing the bad advice.72
- More on this subject can be found in Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan’s Ahavat Chesed [Feldheim]. There is an excellent email list regarding chesed opportunities: www.TraditionOfKindness.com.
- Sifri (Deut. 36:6); Talmud – Baba Metzia 30b; cf. Rambam (Deyot 1:5-6)
- Yevamot 79a
- Rambam (Deyot 6:3)
- Shu”t HaRashba (1:252, 257)
- Ahavat Chesed 3:8
- Talmud – Avot 1:15
- Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, quoted in Tenu'at HaMussar (1:31) by Rabbi D. Katz
- Genesis 18:1-2
- Talmud – Shabbat 127a
- Midrash Tehillim 110
- Avot 1:5
- Sefer HaYirah
- Ahavat Chesed 3:2
- Talmud – Sotah 46b
- Rambam (Aivel 14:2)
- Talmud – Sotah 46b; Orchot Chaim (2:47)
- Da’at Zekeinim (Deut. 21:7); Sefer Chassidim 57
- Genesis 21:33
- Rashi (Genesis 18:1)
- Talmud – Sotah 14a
- Talmud – Nedarim 39b
- Yoreh De’ah (335:4)
- Magen Avraham 119:1
- P’nei Baruch (Bikur Cholim 1:21)
- Yoreh De’ah 335:8
- P’nei Baruch (Bikur Cholim 1:11)
- Yoreh De’ah 335:4
- Shu”t Igros Moshe (Yoreh De’ah 1:223)
- Rambam (Aivel 14:1)
- Rashi (Megillah 29a); Shach (Yoreh De’ah 360:1); Drisha (Yoreh De’ah 361)
- Talmud – Ketubot 17a
- Rashi (Sukkah 49b)
- Yoreh De’ah 249:15
- Rashi (Talmud – Sukkah 49b)
- Exodus 22:24
- Choshen Mishpat 70:1
- Rashi (Sukkah 49b); Ahavat Chesed (4:22)
- Baba Batra 10a
- See Rambam (Deyot 1:6)
- Yoreh De’ah (248:1)
- Yoreh De’ah (247:2)
- Yoreh De’ah (247:4)
- Isaiah 1:27
- Ketubot 67b
- See Talmud – Yoma 35a
- See Talmud – Shabbat 25b
- Yoreh De’ah 250:1
- As heard from Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits
- Yoreh De’ah 249:3-4
- Deut. 15:10
- Rema – Yoreh De’ah 249:4
- Rema – Yoreh De’ah 249:13
- see Daniel 12:3
- Choshen Mishpat (97:1
- Rambam (Matnot Aniyim 10:7)
- Yoreh De’ah 251:3
- Yoreh De’ah 251:3
- Yoreh De’ah 251:3
- Yoreh De’ah 251:9
- Yoreh De’ah 251:7
- Yoreh De’ah 251:8
- Rambam (Talmud Torah 1:9)
- More information on this subject can be found in The Laws of Tzedakah and Maaser by Rabbi Shimon Taub (ArtScroll), and Maaser Kesafim, edited by Cyril Domb (Feldheim)
- Rema – Yoreh De’ah 249:1
- Rambam (Melachim 9:1); Yoreh De’ah 249:1
- Ta’anit 9a
- Shach (Yoreh De’ah 249:2)
- Maaser Kesafim 3:1-2
- Maaser Kesafim 2:1
- Deut. 27:18; Ahavat Chesed 3:7, 3:8
- Rashi (Leviticus 19:14)