Maimonides' Ladder of Tzedakah
The best forms of charity make the recipient self-sufficient.
Excerpted from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1995 by Jason Aronson, Inc.
This translation of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14, by Dr. Meir Tamari, is annotated as well, adding background information and interpretation.
The highest degree of charity—above which there is no higher—is he who strengthens the hand of his poor fellow Jew and gives him a gift or [an interest-free] loan or enters into a business partnership with the poor person. [Interestingly, Maimonides within the internal allocation of this degree proceeds from the lower rank to the higher. The loan is a higher form of charity than is the outright gift since the poor are not shamed thereby (Rashi on Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 63a), while the business partnership is more praiseworthy than the loan or any other form of charity.] By this partnership the poor man is really being strengthened as the Torah commands in order to strengthen him till he is able to be independent and no longer dependent on the public purse. It is thus written, “Strengthen him [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).
[In modern terms, these are all charitable actions aimed at breaking the poverty cycle and enabling the poor to establish themselves as independent and productive members of society. For this reason, there is no halakhic objection to the poor working while they are receiving their basic needs from society. By the same standards, guidance regarding budgeting, financial planning, consolidation of loans, and so forth, would be included in this highest form of charity.]
A lower standard of charity is one in which the benefactor has no knowledge of the recipient and the latter has no knowledge of the individual source of charity—matan b’seter [“giving in secret”]. This is practicing the mitzvah of charity for the sake of the mitzvah [since the benefactor has no benefit, social or egoistical]. Such charity is like the courtyard in the [ancient] Temple where the righteous used to place their donations secretly and the poor would benefit from them in secret. Similar to this secret courtyard is the act of one who puts his money into the charity box [or funds].
Below this rank is the case where the recipient is known to the benefactor but the latter is unaware of the source of the charity. [Since the benefactor may have, subconsciously, pleasure and a sense of power over the recipient, this detracts from his act and makes it less meritorious than the previous standard.] This is what the sages used to do when they would go in secret and place their gifts at the door of the poor. It is fitting to do this and meritorious in those cases where the officials in charge of the communal charity do not behave righteously.