Maimonides’ Order of Giving to the Poor
(Hilchot Matnot Ani’im: The Laws of Gifts to [lit. “that belong to”] the Poor, from Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah 10:1, 7-14)
The Talmud treats some forms of giving to the poor as more meritorious than others. Maimonides organized them into a list, sometimes called the Golden Ladder of Tzedaka* or charitable giving. Here they are in brief:
- Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.
- Giving tzedaka anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person (or public fund) which is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedaka with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
- Giving tzedaka anonymously to a known recipient.
- Giving tzedaka publicly to an unknown recipient.
- Giving tzedaka before being asked.
- Giving adequately after being asked.
- Giving willingly, but inadequately.
- Giving “in sadness” (giving out of pity): It is thought that Maimonides was referring to giving because of the sad feelings one might have in seeing people in need (as opposed to giving because it is a religious obligation). Other translations say “giving unwillingly” or “grudgingly.”
(From Wikipedia, “Tzedakah”)
The following is Maimonides’ own phrasing of his ladder. It’s noteworthy that he treated tzedaka as more important than any other of the Torah’s commandments, and ensuring another person’s livelihood as more meritorious than any other form of tzedaka. Noteworthy, too, that the next highest level is to give not to the poor person directly, but to some communal agent charged with seeing to the needs of the poor. In the days of the Temple, this was the Secret Office. In Maimonides’ own time it was the charity box. Today, the analogy might be the community chest, Jewish federation or perhaps taxes (since all these describe a mitzva, mean a commandment or obligation, not a voluntary act) to support welfare and job creation.
Here’s Maimonides in his own words (Mishneh Torah Chapter 10, verses 1, 7-14):
1) We are required to care more about the mitzva [commandment] of tzedaka* than for any other positive mitzva. For the mitzva of tzedaka is the sign of the righteous descendants of Abraham our father, as “[God] has made known to him [Abraham], so that he shall command his sons to do tzedaka” (Gen. 18:19). The throne of Israel is not established, nor does true faith stand except through tzedaka, for “through tzedaka will I [God] be established” (Isaiah 54:14). And Israel will not be redeemed except through tzedaka, for “Zion will be ransomed through judgment and returned through tzedaka” (Isaiah 1:27).
7) There are eight levels of tzedaka, each greater than the next. The greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs no longer [beg from] people. For it is said, “You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him,” (Leviticus XXV:35) that is to say, strengthen him until he needs no longer fall [upon the mercy of the community] or be in need.
8) Below this is the one who gives tzedaka to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor. For this is performing a mitzva for the sake of Heaven. This is like the Secret [Anonymous] Office in the Temple. There the righteous gave secretly, and the good poor drew sustenance anonymously. This is much like giving tzedaka through a tzedaka box. One should not put into the box unless he knows that the one responsible for the box is faithful and wise and a proper leader like Rabbi Hananya ben Teradyon.
9) Below this is one who knows to whom he gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins into the doors of the poor. It is worthy and truly good to do this if those who are responsible for collecting tzedaka are not trustworthy.
10) Below this is one who does not know to whom he gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to pack coins into their scarves and roll them up over their backs, and the poor would come and pick [the coins out of the scarves] so that they would not be ashamed.
11) Below this is one who gives to the poor person before being asked.
12) Below this is one who gives to the poor person after being asked.
13) Below this is one who gives [less than what is fitting or needed] to the poor person [but] gladly and with a smile.
14) Below this is one who gives to the poor person unwillingly [alt. grudgingly].
* Tzedaka, unlike “charity” (from the Greek karitas, “love), is the Jewish legal requirement to do rightly with you fellow person — that is, to support him when he is in need (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). — Jonathan J. Baker
Translation by Jonathan J. Baker, from his Little Corner of the Web (copyright 1999-2006).