Monday, 23 July 2018

How Much Charity Are We Obligated to Give the Poor Person?

In today's "Random Torah" post, we take a look at the actual obligation of giving. How much is one required to give to others? Granted, people need. Granted we have to consider the other when we give. He may need water. He may need food. He may need clothing. He may need shelter. He may need a car to get around in. There are all sorts of necessities that those who don't have might actually need. But, be that as it may, how much are we actually obligated to give the other. We take a look at a ruling in the Rambam to find out the Psak Halachah - the definitive halachic ruling as ruled by the Rambam.

Ki Tisa

Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 7:5

בָּא הֶעָנִי וְשָׁאַל דֵּי מַחֲסוֹרוֹ וְאֵין יַד הַנּוֹתֵן מַשֶּׂגֶת נוֹתֵן לוֹ כְּפִי הַשָּׂגַת יָדוֹ וְכַמָּה עַד חֲמִישִׁית נְכָסָיו מִצְוָה מִן הַמֻּבְחָר. וְאֶחָד מֵעֲשָׂרָה בִּנְכָסָיו בֵּינוֹנִי. פָּחוֹת מִכָּאן עַיִן רָעָה. וּלְעוֹלָם לֹא יִמְנַע עַצְמוֹ מִשְּׁלִישִׁית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשָׁנָה. וְכָל הַנּוֹתֵן פָּחוֹת מִזֶּה לֹא קִיֵּם מִצְוָה. וַאֲפִלּוּ עָנִי הַמִּתְפַּרְנֵס מִן הַצְּדָקָה חַיָּב לִתֵּן צְדָקָה לְאַחֵר:

If a poor person comes and asks for what is sufficient to fill his needs and one does not have the means to provide it for him, one gives according to his means. How much is this? One-fifth of one's assets is the best possible way, but one-tenth is the usual way. Less than this is a bad sign, and never should one restrain himself from a third of a shekel a year. Anyone who has not given at least this much has not fulfilled the mitzvah. Even a poor person who lives on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.


Picture the scene for a moment. The person in need comes to your door asking for assistance. In today's times, this could include his having sent an email, posting a message on the social media, launching a funding campaign, having a website that offers givers the opportunity to give to him in a dignified manner etc.

We take a look and realise the person is in need of help. At once, we break out into a sweat. Well - we should anyway. Someone is struggling, and we have to do what we can to help. 

I cannot reiterate enough the tragedy. Never should a person have to take his life out of this world because of money issues. Life is filled with so much to get through. The tests of health, relationships, growth etc. keep one going through life. We have to get through it all! But we can only do so with money. Of course, money is not the object of the "life" exercise. Money is the means to attaining the goal. But without it, one is helpless and can do nothing at all!

We should make a sort of an assumption to a person's life as much as our own. What is my purpose in life? What is his? It is not to accumulate wealth. However, without money to physically stay alive, nobody will be able to ever attain any goals. They will be dead - even when they are alive!

It's kind of like giving a poor man the gift of a brand new Ferarri! We tell him we have given him the very fastest of cars available. It's shiny and spanking new! It will get him to wherever he wishes to go and it will work just fine, not breaking down like a 20-year-old second-hand car might. At that point in time, we hand over the keys and tell him - now it's up to you! Get on with things. I have given you everything you need for success!

Of course, only the fool gives the gift of the car in this way. In fact, all one has done is made it harder for the poor man to get on with his mission. He cannot afford gas!!! He cannot afford to purchase new tires when the time comes! He cannot afford to pay for the insurance! He cannot afford the licensing costs! Actually, he is basically stuck. He is dead, even though his car is the best for keeping alive! So too is the story of the poor man in life.

Practically, it doesn't really matter if he has a body. Because if he is in need of help, and everybody tells him what a healthy body he has, and therefore he should be able to live, but if the fellow lacks food, he will be dead even while he is alive!

Our duty then is to help him! The question is, what is my responsibility? Do I have to give over everything I own so that he can have? Do I need to make sure he has food for the month/year? Do I need to make sure he has a home - and shelter over his head? What is my obligation?

The Rambam tells us. It is not for us to take care of all his needs - unless of course we actually can (see the previous post discussing the obligation to assist the poor man.) Indeed, the poor man may need all sorts of things. If, however, I cannot afford it, I am not obligated to take care of him completely. Others will have to chip in and help too. And let us remind ourselves, that we are not free of the obligation of encouraging friends and family to help too. Our encouraging them will assist us to take a bigger part in the Mitzvah as we spur others on to helping even where we can't! We are all obligated in something. Nobody is totally exempt!

Our obligation is a relatively simple one -- says the Rambam. We must give up 10% of our (net) income to charity. If one can ideally - one should give one fifth. Of course, the wealthier we are, the easier it is to give more without losing out for ourselves. One who earns $100 and must part with even $10 will end up significantly poorer in terms of his being able to live with only $90. One with $10 000 - even if he gives up $1000 will still have $9000 to live on. One who earns $1 million dollars, will have $900 000 when he gives away $100 000. And of course, for the select few (who today number quite an amount actually) those who have $1 billion dollars will not fall short of anything in their lives even if they give away $100 million - even though theoretically speaking, all gave just ten percent.

However, even the $100 million person - who would give 20% of his wealth away would still walk off significantly better than the $100 person even if he only gave 10% of his wealth away. Everything is relative. One must, therefore, take an honest stock-taking of the amount of wealth one has, and distribute it in accordance with the Rambam's teaching.

It is correct to give 20% (for those who can afford to without destroying themselves in the process). Nevertheless, everyone should give 10% in any case. Be that all as it may - a person who finds that parting with 10% will cause him to lack money for himself to live (note: this does not include three cars, two holidays each year, three holiday homes, travelling overseas to see family in three continents four times a year etc.) - such an individual would be required to give something each year. The Rambam says - a third of a Shekel. An insignificant amount. The point being, that he should still give something each year, even if he is struggling completely.

I remember being in Yeshiva many years ago. There was one particular "beggar" who would walk around the Yeshiva asking for assistance. It never ceased to amaze me. He would come in wearing old garments - well worn out. He would be wearing completely worn out shoes with holes in them so that one could see his socks. His life must have been a most unfortunate one. I wished I could help him. He looked sincere. He looked like he needed real help. He was genuine. He wasn't out to outdo anyone.

But with all that, I would watch him. As he went about his daily collecting of pitiful 10 Agarot coins, half-shekel coins, a few shekel coins and if he was lucky - a kind individual might give him 5 or 10 shekels. It was not easy to watch this. I was in no position to help. I have never been in much of a position to help anyone financially. I could not do much for him. I would greet him. But I watched him. As he walked around, somehow being able to cope with his dreadful situation in life - he might notice another "beggar" (a word I hate!) coming through also asking for money. As he would pass him, he would take from his hard earned money - and he would give it to the other. It was a humbling experience to watch this.

Years later, I have actually seen beggars (and here I do not use the word with compassion) asking for assistance as they collect larger sums knowing from whom to collect. I have gone outside after shul to see them driving beautiful cars. They all wear fine garments. I myself - taken off guard - have even given to people I have seen celebrating the weddings of their family with far more glamour than I could ever have dreamed of - though they had clearly pointed out having absolutely nothing. To this day, I have never understood what they meant. They live in wealthier neighbourhoods than I do. They often drive cars. They regularly purchase brand new garments - all things that I don't do - but that I gave to them because they claimed to have had nothing. 

I had once seen a fellow in shul shouting loudly at one of these beggars and had found out afterwards that he owned his own apartment in Jerusalem (a minimum of 1.5 - 2 million shekels at least) together with having purchased apartments for all his children. Readers may wonder why it bothered me so much. The reason is because in my own life, I have never come close to even begin starting to own an apartment for myself. Yet here, people were giving without consideration, to a person who had clearly taken good care of his entire family giving them complete stability in their lives.

Sometimes, people get values wrong. This man in shul shouted correctly so at someone who was truly fooling the public. Indeed, I left, only to see him drive off in a beautiful car that he had to go around in. Though people may say it may be borrowed... if so, I will always say - I wish that someone would lend me their car - every day - so that I could also do the things I need to in my life.

But it is sad to see when people get their value system wrong. Those who don't need and ask - are often given way over what they needed - having taken well care of their families already. Yet the same people who give liberally to these individuals, will shout and scream at someone struggling and who cannot even begin to make a start in their lives.

We must consider well to whom we give. As for our Halachah today, however, it is important to know that while we don't have to give everything we have to support others, we cannot escape our obligations. 20% for those who can afford it. 10% for the average person. For one who really doesn't have - give just something - even one-third of a shekel per year.

Giving to others is a great test. Most will never understand just how important it is to give to those who truly need, and how much to give to them - so that they too can live in dignity in their lives. So often, we leave them alone to live a life of death even though they are alive.

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