The Levels of Tzedakah in Judaism

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Katz, Lisa. "The Levels of Tzedakah in Judaism." ThoughtCo, Dec. 29, 2015, thoughtco.com/the-levels-of-tzedakah-in-judaism-2076095. Katz, Lisa. (2015, December 29). The Levels of Tzedakah in Judaism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-levels-of-tzedakah-in-judaism-2076095 Katz, Lisa. "The Levels of Tzedakah in Judaism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-levels-of-tzedakah-in-judaism-2076095 (accessed October 24, 2017).
An Israeli gives charity to a Jewish beggar November 30, 2005 in downtown Tel Aviv. With almost one in five Israeli families living below the poverty line, the issue is expected to be a dominating factor in Israel's March 28, 2006 general elections.
An Israeli gives charity to a Jewish beggar November 30, 2005 in downtown Tel Aviv. With almost one in five Israeli families living below the poverty line, the issue is expected to be a dominating factor in Israel's March 28, 2006 general elections. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Maimonides, often known as Rambam from the acronym for his name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, was a 12th-century Jewish scholar and physician who wrote a code of Jewish law called the , based on the rabbinic oral tradition.

In the Mishnah Torah, one of the most important works in Judaism, Rambam organized the different levels of tzedakah (צדקה), or charity, into a list from the least to the most honorable.

Sometimes, it is known as the "Ladder of Tzedkah" because it goes from "least honorable" to "most honorable." Here, we are starting with the most honorable and working backwards. 

Note: Although tzedakah is often translated as charity, it is more than simply giving. Charity often implies that you're giving because you've been moved by the heart to do so. Tzedakah, which literally means "righteousness," on the other hand, is compulsory because it is simply the right thing to do. 

Tzedakah: From High to Low

The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business. These forms of giving allow the individual to not have to rely on others. Ultimately, however, the loan is one of the highest form of charity (rather than an outright gift), according to the medieval sage Rashi, because the poor are not shamed by a loan (Rashi on Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 63a).

The absolute highest form of charity is to get the individual established in business, which comes from the verse:

“Strengthen [the poor person] so that he does not fall [as distinct from the one who has already become poor] and become dependent on others” (Leviticus 25:35).

A lesser form of tzedakah is when the donor and recipient are unknown to one another, or matan b’seter ("giving in secret").

An example would be donating to the poor, in which the individual gives in secret and the recipient profits in secret. This type of charity is to perform a mitzvah entirely for the sake of Heaven. 

A lesser form of charity is when the donor is aware of the recipient's identity, but the recipient is unaware of the source. At one point in time, great rabbis would distribute charity to the poor by putting coins in the doors of the poor. One of the concerns about this type of charity is that the benefactor might — whether consciously or subconsciously — derive pleasure or a sense of power over the recipient. 

An even lesser form of tzedakah is when the recipient is aware of the donor's identity, but the donor does not know the identity of the recipient. The concerns about this type of charity are that the recipient might feel beholden to the giver, causing them shame in the presence of the donor and a feeling of obligation. According to one tradition, the great rabbis would tie coins to strings in their coats and toss the coins/strings over their shoulders so the poor could run up behind them and take the coins. A modern example might be if you sponsor a soup kitchen or other charitable act and your name is placed upon the banner or listed somewhere as a sponsor.

 

A lesser form of charity is when one gives directly to the poor without being asked. A prime example of this comes from the Torah in Genesis 18:2-5 when Abraham doesn't wait for the strangers to come to him, but rather he runs out to them and urges them to come into his tent where he rushes about to provide them with food, water, and shade in the blistering heat of the desert. 

And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. And he said, "My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant. Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts; after[wards] you shall pass on, because you have passed by your servant." And they said, "So shall you do, as you have spoken." 

A lesser form of tzedakah is when one gives directly to the poor after being asked. 

An even lesser form of charity is when one gives less than he or she should, but does so cheerfully.

The lowest form of tzedakah is when donations are given grudgingly. 

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Katz, Lisa. "The Levels of Tzedakah in Judaism." ThoughtCo, Dec. 29, 2015, thoughtco.com/the-levels-of-tzedakah-in-judaism-2076095. Katz, Lisa. (2015, December 29). The Levels of Tzedakah in Judaism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-levels-of-tzedakah-in-judaism-2076095 Katz, Lisa. "The Levels of Tzedakah in Judaism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-levels-of-tzedakah-in-judaism-2076095 (accessed October 24, 2017).