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How to Appropriate One’s Tzedaka Money

Parsha Halacha – Parshat Re’eh/Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Elul
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The Torah portion of Re’eh tells us regarding giving tzedakah (charity): כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵֽאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה׳ אֱלֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵֽאָחִיךָ הָֽאֶבְיוֹן. If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities, in your land which the L-rd, your G-d, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother.”[1]
Preferred Recipients

The Talmud[2] analyzes this verse and infers from it that there are four levels of people in terms of receiving tzedakah.

1)     A Family Member
The verse says, “from one of your brothers” meaning that one should lend (or give) to the poor of one’s family before helping other poor people even if they live in one’s community. The commentaries[3] add that one should first give to one’s relatives even if they live in another city before giving to the local poor.
·        If one’s relative is not poor but needs a loan, some authorities say that one may extend him a loan rather than to a poor person.[4] Others say that a loan to a poor person should take priority.[5]
2)     Community Members
The verse says, “in one of your cities.” This teaches us that one should prioritize giving to the poor of one’s city before the poor of other cities. The reason for this is that one should first take care of those closest to oneself. It has been suggested[6] that priority is only given to the poor who rely on local support. But if a poor person travels to other places to raise funds, it is no longer incumbent on his community to give him priority since he has other sources of help.
3)     The Poor of Israel and Jerusalem
The words “in your land” indicate (according to the Sifri) that it is a mitzvah to give to the poor of the land of Israel before giving to the poor in the rest of the world. The Chatam Sofer adds[7] that the poor of Jerusalem are prioritized over the poor of the rest of the land of Israel. Because Jerusalem is the holiest city in the world and this holiness still rests there today, its inhabitants receive special treatment despite the fact that there is no Bait HaMikdash at this time. (May Hashem rebuild it speedily!)
4)     The Poor of the Diaspora
Since the words, “which the L-rd, your G-d, is giving you” are extra (as everyone knows that “your land” refers to the land of Israel), the Sifri says that it teaches us that one should also help the poor in the rest of the world even if they are not members of one’s community. Were it not for these words, one might think that one need only care for one’s own family and community as well as those living in Israel (Torah Temimah).
In addition, the Talmud says that one should prioritize lending to a poor Jew over lending to a poor gentile even if the gentile is offering to pay interest while the loan to the Jew will, of course, be a free loan. This is based on the beginning of the verse which says, “If there will be among you a needy person.”

Choosing the Right Cause

The above list addresses the order of preferred recipients in terms of the mitzvah of tzedakah to the poor. In addition, there are also rules as to which types of tzedakah are more important than others. The rest of this article will discuss these types of tzedakah and their levels of priority as based on Minchat Asher, (Parshat Re’eh, Siman 21) by Rabbi Asher Weiss who is also the Rabbi of Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem. It is important to note that the list does not mean one should only give to the more important tzedakot and ignore the others. Rather, one should give to all important causes to the extent that one can afford. It means that the more important causes should be somewhat prioritized.

Rabbi Weiss gives a total of five types of tzedakah and explains their order as follows:

1)     Top Priority: Saving Lives
The most important type of tzedakah is to use one’s money to save lives, for example, to redeem captives whose lives might otherwise be in danger.[8] In fact, one is obligated to spend all of one’s money to save someone’s life if there is no other way to save him.[9]
I heard that Rabbi David Yosef (son of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef ob”m) ruled that the providing necessary support for those who do Kiruv (outreach) is similar to saving lives since a person’s soul is even more important than his body.
2)     Supporting Torah Scholars                      
It would seem that supporting a Yeshivah, Kolel, or school where Torah is taught is included in this level of Tzedakah if it enables people to study Torah who would otherwise be unable to do so.
3)     Supporting Poor People who are Sick
4)     Donating to Build (or Maintain) a Shul
The order of levels 2, 3 and 4 can be derived from the story told in the Jerusalem Talmud (end of Tractate Pe’ah and Shekalim 5:4). Rabbi Chama, son of Rabbi Chanina, and the great Rabbi Hoshiyah were once walking near the shuls of Lud. Rabbi Chama said to Rabbi Hoshiyah, “Look at how much money my forefathers spent on building these shuls!” Rabbi Hoshiyah responded, “How many people were ruined through their efforts! Weren’t there people who wanted to study Torah [and couldn’t do so because no one was supporting them]?”
Similarly, Rabbi Avun donated money to build gates for a Bait Midrash. When Rabbi Manah came to visit him, Rabbi Avun showed him the gates and explained how he had donated it. In response, Rabbi Manah quoted the following verse (Hoshe’a 8:14, “Israel has forgotten his Maker and has built temples,” and said, “Didn’t you have any people who wanted to study Torah?”
The simple meaning of the above verse is that Hoshe’a was rebuking the Jewish people for building idolatrous temples instead of serving G-d. But Rabbi Maneh borrowed the verse to express his disappointment over the focus on the physical sanctuary versus the study of Torah. In some versions of the Talmud, Rabbi Manah’s comment was “Didn’t you have any people who wanted to study Torah or any sick people who were lying in the garbage dump [for lack of support]?”
Based on this story, the Maharik (shoresh 128) cites the Tashbetz who says that we see from Rabbi Hoshiyah and Rabbi Manah’s comments that one should rather support Torah scholars (who would otherwise be unable to learn) and sick, poor people than build a shul. On the other hand, he writes, since these are the only two charities that Rabbi Maneh specified, we can gather from these comments that building (or maintaining) a shul should come before the support of regular (healthy) poor people. The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 149:15) cites this opinion as Halacha.[10]
In addition, although the story in the Jerusalem Talmud is talking about buildinga shul, the Maharik applies the same concept to maintaining a shul.
5)     Helping an Orphan get Married
The Shulchan Aruch rules that there is no greater Tzedaka than assisting an orphan girl get married.[11] The source of this ruling is the responsa of Maharam Alshakar (Siman 72). In that source it is clear that the same applies to helping an orphaned boy. Regarding helping a chatan or kallah whose parents are, thank G-d, alive but cannot afford to make the wedding themselves, the Maharam Alashkar is unsure as to whether or not this is the same level mitzvah. Certainly, it is a very significant mitzvah, even if not on the same level as supporting an orphan in that situation.
6)     Helping Poor People (Especially in Finding a Job)
The greatest form of helping the poor is to assist someone in getting a job, as the Shulchan Aruch writes,[12] “The noblest form is to strengthen the hand of a Jew in need, to give him a gift or loan, or to join him in partnership, or to find him work, that he may not become a public charge and beggar.”
The Aruch HaShulchan adds[13] that in his time there were groups of people in many cities that would assist in the vocational training of young Jewish boys from poor families. He writes that it is very great matter (mitzvah) but that they should make sure that the boys pray on a daily basis and are trained to be G-d fearing Jews who keep their faith in G-d and are kind to their fellow man.
May Hashem bless us to be able to give all forms of Tzedakah!
May Hashem protect all of the Jewish communities wherever they may be!
[1] Deut. 15:7
[2] Bava Metzi’ah 71a
[3] Eshel Avraham and Ahavat Chesed quoted in the Biurim on the Metivta Shas.
[4] Magen Giborim by Rabbi Eliezer D’Avila of 18th Century Morroco on Bava Metzi’ah ibid. His reason is that one’s relatives are like oneself and just as one may keep money for themselves if needed, the same is true in terms of helping a relative.
[5] Ahavat Chessed, 6:1 based on the Talmudic teaching (ibid) that a poor person should come before a rich person. This is based on the verse which says “If there will be among you a needy person” before it says, ”from one of your brothers.” This indicates that the priority a poor person receiving before a rich person is more important than the priority that is usually given to one’s own family. He applies the same rules if one’s Torah teacher who is not poor needs a loan (Netiv HaChesed, 3).
[6] Minchat Asher, Re’eh, Siman 21:5
[7] Y.D. 233 and 234
[8] Based on Y.D. 259: 14. See Taz 6
[9] Minchat Asher, Berieshit, 38:7. See there for more discussion on this matter.
[10] The Minchat Asher writes that supporting Torah scholars should come before supporting sick poor people as Torah study is greater than the mitzvah of visiting the sick. Although this is not clear from the story in the Jerusalem Talmud, he cites Chochmat Adam 145:7 in support of his view. (Personally, I do not see how the Chochmat Adam supports this position. A.C.)
See also Biur HaGra on the Shulchan Aruch who questions the ruling of the Maharik.
[11] Although the wording of the Shulchan Aruch seems to indicate that this is the highest priority in Tzedakah, the Minchat Asher understands this to mean that it the greatest form of Tzedakah to the poor. Yet, as explained above, there are other types of Tzedakah that come before supporting the poor. But see Chochmat Adam ibid
[12] Y.D. 149:6
[13] 149:15
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom, a Chodesh Tov and a Ktivah VaChatima Tovah!

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