The starting point for individuals sharing their personal money for the needs of poor people is in the Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 50a) where Rabbi Ila’I reports that in the town of Usha the Rabbis instituted a regulation that “A person may not give away more than a fifth for Tzedakah.”
Over the centuries, certain parameters to this rule developed, particularly noting three exceptions to the upper limit:
- If you are wealthy and there is no danger of your becoming dependent on others to meet your basic needs;
- You are permitted to give away more than 20% in a last will and testament; and,
- Securing the release of people in captivity, the assumption being that they are always in imminent danger of being killed.
In the 12th Century, Maimonides (Hilchot Arachin Va’Charamin 8:13) states rather forcefully (and I believe most significantly) that a person may not give away everything:…this is not righteousness, but rather foolishness. Giving away all one’s money causes that person to be in need of others….this is one of the situations the sages referred to when they taught, “A foolish righteous person is among those who ‘wear out the world.’”
In Judaism there is no ideal of self-impoverishment in order to benefit other people.
In 16th Century Tzfat, Joseph Caro, summarizes the above in his Shulchan Aruch law code (Yoreh De’ah 249:1) adding one or two descriptives on their percentages:
The amount one should give to Tzedakah:
- if one can afford it, enough to respond to all of the needs of the poor people. But if one cannot afford that much, then one should give up to a fifth of one’s possessions – which is doing the Mitzvah in an exceptional fashion – one tenth is an average percentage, and less is considered “poor eyesight” [i.e., giving less than needed because you may not have recognized how great the needs are]….
- and one should not give away more than 20%, lest he or she ultimately becomes dependent on others.
I admit that I have not researched Rabbi Caro’s predecessor commentators and legalists on this issue of Tzedakah, but I have wondered, and sometimes been troubled by his opening phrase, “the amount one should give to Tzedakah: If one can afford it, enough to respond to all of the needs of the poor people.”
At this point I need to list several comments and questions:
- Is it conceivable that Rabbi Caro, living even in the relatively small community in Tzfat in the 1500s, believed that the people could provide for every poor person’s every need?
- So much the more so is this true nowadays where even a young child holds all the world’s poverty and individual needs at his fingertips on his or her iPhone.
- Why state this enormous Tzedakah quantity as the law, and then realistically scale down the demand in the next section?
- I have always felt that this would be such a heavy burden on conscientious, sensitive, caring people. Surely the danger is that it is potentially toxic, stultifying, yielding a sense that no matter what a person can do as an individual, he or she will never reach the ultimate goal of eliminating the needs of poor people, and thus removing a Messianic Age from even the most remote possibility of being realized?
- Or is he teaching that – nevertheless – (to use an old Jewish phrase) the footsteps of the Messiah approach at a slower-than-strolling pace, proceeding baby-step by baby-step with each individual’s act of giving?
For those who do not see “poverty” in the abstract, but rather individuals ill-clad, with no home safe from the elements, bellies growling from lack of even the minimum number of calories to sustain a Menschlich way of life, I would hope that his intent is the positive one here in #5 and not the crushing psychological burden of #4.
Despite the benefit of reviewing Rabbi Caro’s words 101 times (and not only 100), in the final analysis, I personally make a point of frequently avoiding this line in the Shulchan Aruch.
For some reason, now, here, in the 21st Century, it just doesn’t fit the existential reality of the world, and I cannot seem to bridge the gap between the five centuries.