Reflections on Maimonides’ 8 levels of Charity (tzedakah)

Good timing. Just as I’ve started this blog I came across a description of charity (the Hebrew word tzedakah) by the 12th century Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides

Maimonides wrote a code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah, based on the Rabbinic oral tradition, and he described charity from the least to the most honorable as follows:

8. When donations are given grudgingly.

7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.

6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.

5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.

4. When the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor does not know the identity of the recipient.

3. When the donor is aware of the recipient’s identity, but the recipient is unaware of the source.

2. When the donor and recipient are unknown to each other.

1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

This got me thinking about what motivates people to give. I asked this question of someone today and she said that people give because they want to see an impact, want to see a positive change in the world. I think that is true, but there’s more to it than that. People give for lots of reasons, many laudable, some base.

Maimonides suggests that all giving is not equal, that the motivation behind the gift has some moral content. My reading is that the greatest gifts are those that create a relationship of equals between the donor and the recipient. Otherwise, the gift can create subservience or obligation, can undermine the dignity of the recipient, and can keep the recipient subjugated to the giver and in a constant position of need. This means that we, people in a position to give and people who encourage other people to give, need to think about the power dynamics that we create, and about ways to make the dignity of the recipient paramount in everything we do.

What about times when it’s better not to be anonymous, when a gift can be a signal? There are times when putting one’s name on a list of donors, on the side of a building, or on the name of the world’s biggest Foundation, can be important as a statement about what can be accomplished with great wealth – a statement that can inspire others to act. Or a gift can make you part of a group of like-minded people, who are coming together to make a change in the world.

I don’t know how to unpack the moral pieces of this puzzle, but I think it’s worth some more thought. I’d love comments on this one in particular.

12 thoughts on “Reflections on Maimonides’ 8 levels of Charity (tzedakah)

  1. First, I understand from my Jewish friends that ‘tzedakah’ is better translated as “social equity”. I think that captures the essence of Level 1 giving, whereas “charity” seems pejorative or otherwise somehow negative.

    I struggle with the anonymity issue too, and with the issue of free will vs. prompting (i.e., below Level 5). How about the recent upsurge in fundraising walks, bikes, swims, and the like? Or Jimmy Fund collections being taken in movie theaters? I still get repeated “final membership notice” mailings from organizations to which I stopped contributing years ago. And some charitable organizations trade mailing lists, which means once you give to one you suddenly get hit up by lots more of them–so much for my anonymity there.

    Arguably they are raising awareness (“mindshare” in marketing-speak) for their causes, prompting people to give who might otherwise not, trying to maintain membership rolls, using all the sophisticated marketing tools (e-mail, phone calls, repeated mailings, newsletters) normally used for advertising and commerce. Clearly it’s a competitive business now, fighting for the charity dollar.

    As a potential giver I often feel manipulated by these organizations and their slick marketing . I either don’t give or I’m at Level 8.

    But back to anonymity: There is an argument for setting an example–bearing “social witness”–where your right action can potentially inspire others to right action. It’s a fine line, though, between social witness and peer pressure. Think of the “sponsor sign-up” sheets that someone doing a fundraising walk/bike/swim posts in their workplace. Will the absence of my name on their list be noticed? I will be solidly in Level 6, 7, or 8 if I give, and that doesn’t feel good to me–it feels like manipulation.

    If the action to which I am inspired is Level 5 or higher (5, 4, 3, 2, 1), then it feels less like manipulation and more like free will. But I’m not sure how exactly to make that happen in others.

    I like learning about new charitable organizations and initiatives, and I balance my giving among local, national and global organizations. It’s not always the biggest foundations that need my money the most–I can perhaps make a bigger difference with my contribution to a small local effort.

  2. Wow, Ross, thank you for this. I don’t know what to do about the market-ization of solicitation by charitable organizations, but I think the points you raise about the experience undermines what you hope to accomplish and feel as a donor are important.

  3. great stuff! but you do not have a full or exact translation of maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah. try this:

    There are eight degrees of giving Tzedakah:
    1. The highest degree is to strengthen the hand of a Jew who is poor, giving that person a grant or loan or becoming a partner or finding a job for that person, to strengthen the person’s hand, so that the person will not need to ask for assistance from others…

    2. A lesser degree, is one who gives Tzedakah to a poor poor and is unaware of the recipient, who, in turn, is unaware of the giver. This is indeed a religious act achieved for its own sake.

    Of a similar character is one who contributes to a Tzedakah fund. One should not contribute
    to a Tzedakah fund unless he or she knows that the person in charge of the collections is
    trustworthy and wise and knows how to manage the money properly…

    3. The [third], lesser, degree is when the giver knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the giver. The great sages used to go secretly and cast the money into the doorway of poor people. Something like this should be done, it being a noble virtue, if the Tzedakah
    administrators are behaving properly.

    4. The [fourth], still lower, degree is when the recipient knows the giver, but the giver does not know the recipient. The great sages used to tie money in sheets which they threw behind their backs, and poor people would come and get it without being embarrassed.

    5. The [fifth], still lower degree is when the giver puts the Tzedakah money into the hands of poor people without being solicited.

    6. The [sixth], still lower degree is when he or she puts the money into the hands of a poor person after being solicited.

    7. The [seventh], still lower degree is when he or she gives the poor person less than he or she should, but does so cheerfully.

    8. The [eighth], still lower degree is when he or she gives the poor person grudgingly/with a feeling of pain/unhappily.

    (Mishna Torah, Laws of Gifts to Poor People, 10:7-14)

    this is danny siegel’s translation ( i prefer to translate #8 as ‘giving via sadness/pain’.

    we can discuss this more.

    arnie draiman

  4. I have a broad experience of philanthropy / charity, including: Professionally, I have helped facilitate millions of dollars for organizations through innovative crowdfunding and strategy; growing up my family received financial assistance from community organizations; I have worked for a decade with executive & programming teams in the non-profit sector, and recently, our family received a gift to help offset medical expenses for my child directly from a friend unexpectedly.

    From all of these windows – I wish all of the work I do/could be erased through the first level of giving. I’m sure my mother, when she was receiving from food pantries, though grateful for the help, would have preferred being on the receiving end of the first level of giving. I wish I wouldn’t have needed to accept my friend’s gift to help my child. I had called organizations that exist to help families with critically ill children, but my child’s disease isn’t on the list… so they compassionately offered: “Let us know what you need.” I didn’t want to ask for money. I have a credit card -we’ll pay it off later. But friends with more compassion and likely a more flexible budget and free decision-making came to me with a recognition that blew me away, “You have enough on your plate, you need to worry about your kid, not money.” Not only did that make me feel supported, but it helped remove a worry in a time when we need more clear judgment. And it also demonstrated the shortfalls organizations have vs. individuals in addressing needs.

    Your observation was spot on: charity given on the lesser levels – while it helps address the need and provide a feeling of being supported / not alone and even encourages philanthropy by others- it does not help elevate the recipient who is poor. And it does not alleviate the worry / concern / burden of the giver. Band-aid. Cure. But more than that.

    Imagine if we were constantly looking for ways to raise ppl up so that they can be in position to give vs. take. Help change the situation — making things right, like optimally right. And that is the literal meaning of ‘Tzedakah’ – NOT charity. Tzedek = justice. Our root for giving is justice, not as many would think: ‘Chesed’ which means loving kindness.

    There are even more Jewish laws governing giving priorities… the Torah concept of tzedakah aims at holistically ‘making things right’ on all fronts: the giver, the recipient, and the community. Now take a look at what each type of giving in Maimonides’s list does for each of the parties involved. The giver is part of the equation too. 🙂

    When we look at giving as just for the other – we may tend to overlook its major moral impact and benefit to the giver. Maimonides is putting insight into practice: Giving is transformational to the giver not just the recipient. How it’s done, how it’s prioritized, its goals, when it’s given, etc.

    We have another principle: “Ha’adam nifal cfi p’ulosav”: Loosely: Man becomes what he does. Giving in an elevated fashion will not only help the recipient in the most ideal way, but the giver will be uplifted as well. Maimonides elsewhere teaches that it is preferable for tzedakah to be given multiple times vs. just give it all at once – again – the action upon the giver is valuable – this is not just a transaction for the benefit of the recipient.

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