Q. Many charity seekers come to my door with recommendation letters from well-known rabbis or organizations. Can I rely on these letters to determine who is truly needy?

A. Giving letters of recommendation to help worthy charity recipients is a centuries-old tradition in Jewish communities. Knowing that an august authority vouches for the bearer, or even that he or she knows of them, goes a long way towards allaying the worries of a giver.

My experience has taught me two things about such letters:

1. It is almost always possible to rely on the content of these letters (when they are genuine).
2. BUT it is important not to read more into the letters than is truly there.

The rabbis or other communal figures who write these letters are usually experienced leaders, who are not quickly taken in by charlatans. However, they also tend to be extremely precise in their use of language, and givers may not always be sensitive to the various expressions they use.

Therefore these letters need to be read with great care. Sometimes the author of such a letter states that he or she personally knows the bearer and can testify for their need, and recommends making a donation. Such a letter is quite a reliable guide that the bearer is truly a worthy recipient.

Sometimes a letter testifies to the author's personal familiarity with the situation, but doesn't testify to their need. This might come about if a rabbi has first-hand knowledge of a person's illness, but without having any definite knowledge that treatment is expensive or that the family is short of money.

In other cases the letter may merely state that the writer knows the recipient and considers him or her a reliable individual. This is important information but is not the same as verification of the person's story.

Some letters merely state that the bearer told the writer of the situation: "So and so told me that he has a rare disease which requires special medical treatment". Such a letter is likely to be reliable, but doesn't really tell us that the charity seeker is needy.

In other cases, a prominent leader may add his name to a letter signed by others writing that he "joins with his colleagues". This generally means that he considers the judgment of the other signatories reliable. This statement is certainly quite meaningful, but it is not equivalent to having the first-hand recommendation of a prominent figure.

Sometimes the content of a letter may be almost comical. A Jewish urban legend tells of an aspiring author who sent his book to a leading rabbi; the rabbi wrote back with a letter of harsh criticism. The author then went from house to house with the letter, showing the "recommendation" of the famous authority which few givers bothered to read.

I don't know if the above "urban legend" is true, but the following story I heard first hand from a rabbi who seldom writes recommendation letters. One congregant so harried and harassed this rabbi that in the end he did pen a letter, something to the effect of: "The bearer of this letter badgered me so much that I agreed to write this letter to get him off my back." The recipient then went around showing others his rare trophy, a letter from this reticent authority! (I'm sure it was not very helpful, as I have no doubt that the letter was written in a clear way to avoid any misunderstanding.)

One community rabbi I know has two separate pads: one says "approval" and the other says "recommendation". The approval of this very thorough rabbi is certainly of value, but it does not amount to a "recommendation" which only a small fraction of charity seekers obtain.

A final caveat: no matter how convincing a letter is, it is of no value if it is not genuine. Sometimes recipients have good reasons for photocopying letters, but givers have a right to ask where the original is and why the charity seeker is carrying a copy.

Giving charity is one of the most important mitzvot in the Torah. Rabbis and other communal letters sacrifice many precious hours interviewing charity recipients and writing letters to help them convince givers of their need. These letters are generally quite reliable and should be taken seriously. At the same time, careful attention to the exact words of the author will help us avoid unfortunate misunderstandings and help us to set appropriate priorities in charitable giving.

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