June 18, 2024
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June 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In life, we sometimes give others a lift, a hand or an arm and a leg. Sometimes we give credit or a benefit of the doubt or we give it a rest or a break. All of this giving is important but in Judaism one of the crucial things to give is tzedakah.

The term ”tzedakah” is a Hebrew word that literally means justice or righteousness but is typically used to refer to any form of charity. Generosity and goodwill are key components of Judaism on a religious, social and communal level. Jews are not merely encouraged to share their fortunes; they are required to spread the wealth. The obligation to give, however, is not placed solely on the wealthy. Every Jew, regardless of income and financial stature, is required to give something to those less fortunate because no matter how low you go, there unfortunately is always someone else who has fallen further. In other words, from the poor to the prosperous, every Jew must shell out some shekels to at least one schmendrik, schmegegge, shlemiel and schnook.

The question is how much giving will suffice to comply with the tzedakah requirement? Perhaps the most famous discussion on this topic is found in the Mishneh Torah (“Repetition of the Torah”) written by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a/k/a Maimonides or The Rambam, sometime between 1170 and 1180 CE. The Mishneh Torah consists of fourteen books with numerous sections and chapters. Contained within the section titled “Hilchot Matanot Aniyim” (“Laws about giving to poor people”) is a list setting forth Rambam’s Eight Levels of Giving, from highest to lowest.

The first and highest level of giving includes giving an interest-free loan to, forming a partnership with or giving a grant or job to a person in need as long as it results in the person no longer living by relying on others. So if your friend in need is still sleeping on your couch, you have not reached the highest level of tzedakah.

The second level is giving anonymously to an unknown recipient via a trustworthy person/entity. The trustworthiness of the intermediary is crucial because otherwise, the unknown recipient may in fact be none other than the purported intermediary.

The third level is giving anonymously to a known recipient. This means you should not walk up to the recipient and brag about your charitable endeavors. Tzedakah recipients may be in need but they’re not idiots. They will quickly put two and two together and realize that you are their secret savior. The key to anonymity is staying out of the spotlight and keeping a low profile. There are plenty of other people to bore with your self-promoting stale tales of generosity, so steer clear of the recipients who already have suffered enough.

The fourth level is giving publicly to an unknown recipient. Yes, this qualifies as tzedakah but is it really necessary to advertise your good deeds? Must you broadcast your benevolence? Is it really necessary to extol your own virtues? Can’t you just give quietly, foregoing public praise? If not, then isn’t a portion of your giving really about giving something to yourself? Perhaps that is why the praise-needy find themselves stuck on the fourth level of giving. And therein lies the cruel irony: the higher the level of tzedakah, the less fanfare and notoriety you receive. How great would it be if you could boast about reaching level two but alas that would defeat the goal? If your ego cannot accept thankless giving, then just stay at level four with the comfort of knowing that you are not giving at the lowest level.

The fifth level is giving before being asked. This presumes that there is an endless and ongoing need for tzedakah to you should routinely offer assistance without solicitation. This is similar to one spouse complaining to the other spouse that they should not have to ask for displays of affection. In this way, the poor and the ignored have something in common. This begs the question: is it worse being a loved pauper or an unloved prince/princess? Discuss.

The sixth level is giving adequately after being asked. That’s like saying “I love you” only after someone asks “Do you love me?”

The seventh level is giving willingly but inadequately. For example, if you give less because you need to (i) upgrade from a Maserati to a Lamborghini, (ii) install a solid gold refrigerator or (iii) use $100 bills to mop up a champagne spill, then you are not giving adequately.

The eighth and lowest level is giving out of pity, unwillingly or with regret. However, there arguably are a few lower levels. For instance, (i) giving based solely on self-interest because it will eventually inure to the giver’s benefit, (ii) giving despite knowing that the recipient will eventually be worse off than before or (iii) giving as part of a larger plan of disproportionate and unjustified revenge.

Final thought: The lowest level is when someone de-gifts, i.e., gives and then immediately rescinds and retracts the gift. So rude.

By Jon Kranz

 

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