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I enjoy giving charity, but I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of "good causes" out there: feeding the poor, educational needs, handicapped children, etc. Is there some yardstick I can use to measure the appropriate value of each charity?
You are very astute. Fulfilling one's charitable obligation does not mean simply "giving the money away." You need to make a thorough study of the best use of that money. When you choose one project over another, you have to know rationally why it is more effective than the other. God is expecting you to spend His money wisely. Consider it as the "Your-Name-Here Save the World Foundation."
The first obligation is redeeming captives. Maimonides writes: "Redeeming captives takes precedence over feeding and clothing the poor. There is no mitzvah greater than redeeming captives, since the captive suffers from hunger, thirst, lack of clothing -- and his life in danger."
According to some authorities, Ma'aser must be used solely to support those in need (with priority to Torah scholars), whereas other authorities allow a wider interpretation.
The cost of a mitzvah, that you would have spent in any case, cannot be deducted from your Ma'aser money (Tzitz Eliezer 9:1). For instance, money for synagogue dues cannot be counted as Ma'aser, since there is a prior mitzvah obligation to pray in a synagogue.
However, you could choose to spend extra above-and-beyond what you might otherwise spend for a mitzvah, and deduct that from Ma'aser. For example, if you would normally give a $20 wedding gift, but you know that the couple needs money, you could give a $50 gift and deduct the $30 difference from Ma'aser.
In terms of the order of priority when supporting poor people:
A person's own needs take priority over those of anyone else, and he is not obliged to give charity until he has enough to meet them. But this applies only to the essential minimum needs of food, shelter and clothing.
The Code of Jewish Law (YD 248) states: "Every person is obligated to give tzedakah, even the poor who themselves are recipients thereof."
Maimonides writes that nobody ever became poor from giving tzedakah. In fact, the Talmud (Ta'anit 9a) states that when you give Ma'aser properly, it actually earns you additional wealth.
However, those in the most difficult financial situation could rely on the opinion that allows you to exchange the Ma'aser money with another person in need. The other person simply gives his Ma'aser money to you, and you give yours to him.
A person's poor relatives have priority over other poor people. You can use Ma'aser money to support your parents, but only if you cannot otherwise afford to support them. (If you have other money, it is considered humiliating to use charity funds for this purpose.)
Ma'aser money cannot be used to support your children who have not yet reached the age at which they normally earn a living. If they do not earn a living until they marry, and live with their parents meanwhile, there is a separate parental obligation to support them -- and so Ma'aser money many not be used for that purpose. (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)
Next come poor people of your own town (neighbors first). After that comes poor people in Jerusalem, then in other cities in Israel, and finally poor people in other places outside of Israel. (Midrash - Sifrei Deut. 15:7)
We usually try to help other Jews first, since all Jews are considered "part of your community."