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The Jewish Ethicist: Dependent Donee

The Jewish Ethicist: Dependent Donee

Is it ever a mitzvah not to give charity?


Q. I feel that some charity seekers are in a cycle of dependence; they would be really better off if no one helped them. Is this a valid judgment?

A. The ancient rabbis did express concern for possible negative impact of charity giving, but they gave this concern a very low profile. They were always worried that this concern would be exaggerated and serve as an excuse to withhold charity from the truly needy.

The Torah commands us: "And when your brother becomes poor, and his hand fails with you, support him, though he may be a stranger or a sojourner, so that he may live with you" (Leviticus 25:35). The ancient rabbinical commentary, the Torat Kohanim, interprets this verse as follows:

'When your brother becomes poor and his hand fails with you' - don't allow him to fall. This is like a burden on the back of a donkey; as long as it is in place, one person can hold it and steady it. But if it falls to the ground, five people can't raise it up. And where do we learn that even if you have supported him four or five times, that you still have to go back and support him again? It is said, "and support him" [the word "and" is grammatically superfluous, thus implying repeated action]. Could it be even if this leads him into destructive habits? The Torah teaches, "With you".

"Destructive habits" at the very least includes someone who would use the money in a self-destructive way, such as supporting an addiction or a vice. According to Rav Shimshon Hirsch, it also includes someone who is drawn into dependence on charity.

We find similar expressions in some other commentators. For example, the Torah commands us: "Don't see your brother's donkey or his ox collapse on the way, and hide from them; surely lift them up with him" (Deuteronomy 22:4). Rashi explains that the expression "with him" means that you are only obligated to help if the donkey driver exerts himself; your aid is "with him," not by yourself. If the driver sits idly and waits for you to do the job yourself, there is no requirement to help. The Kli Yakar commentary (on the parallel commandment in Exodus 23:5) infers by extension that we are commanded to help a poor person support himself, not support him if he sits idly and waits for others to do his job.

Yet we also find many sources which warn us not to be overly fastidious when it comes to giving tzedaka. The Talmud goes to the extreme of saying, "Let us be grateful to the fakers, for without them we would sin every day." (1) The punishment for failing to help a genuinely poor person is very great, yet people commonly fall short in this obligation. "Fortunately", we have a certain defense; we can always point out that some charity seekers are fakers, and that we didn't give more so that we wouldn't encourage the frauds. The message seems to be that we shouldn't allow a few charlatans to discourage us from helping someone who seems truly needy.

A Midrash describes a householder who berates a beggar, "Look at his legs! Look at his belly!" In other words, see how he is able-bodied and well-fed, and not needy at all. The Midrash warns that God rebukes the householder: "Not only did you not give him anything, but that which I gave him, you begrudge him!" (2)

The overall message we obtain is as follows: It's true that if we have a firm basis for believing that giving someone charity will work to his detriment, particularly by confirming him in self-destructive behavior, we should refrain from giving. But it is forbidden to adopt a general attitude of excessive suspicion and skepticism towards the needy. We should recognize that giving charity is a special privilege that we attain only through the good offices of the poor, and display an appropriate demeanor of helpfulness and gratitude towards any person who provides convincing evidence of being in need.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 68a. (2) Vayikra Rabba on Leviticus 25:35.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

August 21, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Merav, August 27, 2004 12:00 AM

food coupon program

When I lived in in San Francisco, there was an unique program in the downtown area to help the needy, were they sold coupons that were redeemable for food in several fast food places. People could give the homeless food coupons in place of cash. This way the person giving tzedaka was sure it went for food and not drugs or alcohol. It also enabled the person receiving the food coupons to have more control over their lives, and to save the coupons for later and not be forced to eat everything at once as in the case of receiving food.

(3) Anonymous, August 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Do not humiliate the one in need.

One cannot always tell from a person's appearance his or her ability to work or function. Not all physical ailments are evident, and not all mental and emotional difficulties are evident, but may prevent a person from functioning. One must anticipate people's needs, and not wait to be asked. For some people it is so humiliating and agonizing to ask for help that they may allow themselves to fall too far or even die before asking for help. Others may turn their pain and humiliation outward and turn to theft rather than having to ask for help, which they may feel may be begrudged or not forthcoming. Remember Maimonides' different levels of charity. The higher the level of giving, the least pain and shame are caused to the person being helped. We must be grateful to be allowed to help, because doing this is a great mitzvah, and allows us to become tolerant and understanding of others and better people by helping others.

(2) raye, August 22, 2004 12:00 AM

How do we choose from numerous requests for aid

Daily I am beleagued with numerous requests for donations. And daily it pains me that, as one individual, I do not have the means to contribute to all. It makes me feel that I am letting down people in need.

(1) Anonymous, August 22, 2004 12:00 AM

By, is this timely!

I was raised to give to whomever asked by my mother's (may she rest in peace)action of always doing so. My husband,on the other hand, insisits that it encourages people to use money fr drugs etc. Yesterday, in front of ur five year ld he turned down a begger- I reminded him of these Teachings, and he asked the man if he wanted food. He did, and we bought him a sandwich. My husband says this only works when we are near a place where we can buy food. So what do we do in these instances? I don't wish to disrespect my husband in front of our daughter, but this is very important to me, as it is one of the ways I feel I can honor my mother and pass down her "legacy". Would you be kind enough to give me your thughts?
Thank you,
Wendy Widlus

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