There is no doubt that one of the most well-known texts about Tzedakah that has been taught in classrooms, discussed in adult-education sessions everywhere, and sermonized by rabbis and preachers innumerable times is the Rambam’s Eight Levels of Tzedakah (Mishna Torah, Laws of Gifts to Poor People, 10:7-14).
Inevitably, the leader begins with the highest level. If the audience is asked what is the highest level, then sometimes the mistaken response is Level #2, namely, anonymity on both sides of the act. Almost as often, the leader/teacher/rabbi gets the correct answer — facilitating the person in need to become self-sustaining, through a job, a loan, or any connections the person might have.
I admit that whenever I heard the correct answer to #1, the matter seemed settled, until a friend raised an issue I had never considered. He commented, “And what happens when the now-employed or self-sustaining person reaches an age or condition when he or she can no longer continue?” This very insightful remark then changes the issue from a personal encounter to a societal issue. What happens to that person when…?
This question then leads to Social Security, universal health care, Tzedakah organizations playing their part, and the individual’s own chevra – the kind of caring community of friends the individual may have who will then step in and help manage the situation.
Even in a discussion about Level #2, there is something that is not always covered. The Rambam writes: “Of a similar character is one who contributes to a Tzedakah fund. One should not contribute to a Tzedakah fund unless he or she knows that the person in charge of the collections is trustworthy and wise and knows how to manage the money properly…”
First, the Tzedakah Fund as intermediary obviously provides the necessary third party anonymous element between giver and recipient, Second, the issue to discuss, again, becomes larger, specifically addressing finding trustworthy Tzedakah funds to help fulfill the Mitzvah…certainly a crucial topic to explore in detail.
Rambam’s #3 through #7 are fairly straightforward, but #8 presents a linguistic/translation problem: “she’yeeteyn lo b’etzev”
The difficulty is the Rambam’s final word in the list: b’etzev. I give a rather cumbersome translation: [The eighth], still lower degree is when he or she gives the poor person grudgingly/with a feeling of pain/unhappily. The root ayin-tzadee-vet has many possible meanings. The most common translation I have seen is “grudgingly”, which allows for a crucial piece of Torah-teaching, i.e., according to the Rambam, giving with a “less-than- person” attitude is still Tzedakah. The act itself determines whether or not it is a Mitzvah.
This often surprises American students who are raised on the idea that “It’s the thought that counts.” Not so, says our tradition, even though performing the Mitzvah with the right intention or attitude is preferable, it is not the determining factor in Tzedakah. The same would apply for the translation “unhappily”.
Still, as so often happens, a student enlightened me when discussing “with a feeling of pain”. On the one hand, “with a feeling of pain” could refer to the giver who finds the Mitzvah painful to do, which would be somewhat similar to “grudgingly” or “unhappily”.
However, as my student so incisively pointed out, if it refers to how the giver feels the recipient’s pain, empathizing with the person in need, that would most certainly qualify for a 100% kosher act of Tzedakah. This is similar to taking the basic understanding of ayin-tzadee-vet as “sadness”, i.e., the giver is sad when he or she senses the other person’s hard life.
My thoughts at this point: (1) It would be worthwhile when examining great Jewish texts to review and discuss them again and again – on the order of “One who reviews some item of Torah 100 times is not the same as one who reviews it 101” (Chagiga 9b), the student benefiting mostly in discussing the repetitions with others, and (2) perhaps this is a warning against a student’s or teacher’s complacency that he or she has penetrated the full meaning of a text. Having “finished” with a text, it may well be worthwhile to think twice about it or a third or fourth time or a 101st time.