Investigating the Individuals to Whom We Contribute

A contemporary Conservative rabbi reviews the Jewish legal literature for guidance on how much to ask about a person who solicits us for tzedakah--or whether to give to all who request our help.

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We do not know the talmudic source of this statement, but it is clearly in keeping with the following rabbinic passage: 

Rabbi Abin said: This poor person stands at your door and the Holy One blessed be He stands at his right hand as it is written: "He stands at the right hand of the needy" (Psalms 109:31). (Vayikra Rabbah 34:9) 

On the other hand, other passages recommend kindness to beggars for selfish reasons: "Rabbi Nahman said: This world is like a water wheel—the bucket that is full empties while the empty becomes filled'" (ibid. and parallels). In other words, you should give to beggars now, because one day down the road the tables may be turned—the beggar may become wealthy while you may become a beggar. 

Nonetheless, our sages were not blind. They knew that some beggars were frauds and, even if investigated, some would escape detection. Indeed, a number of rabbis were duped by dishonest beggars. Rabbi Hanina, for example, was accustomed to send four zuz to a certain poor person every Erev Shabbat [Friday]. One time he sent the money with his wife. She returned and said to him, "There is no need... I heard them say to him: On what will you dine—on the white linen tablecloths or on the dyed silk tablecloths?"

This type of fraud prompted Rabbi Elazar to say: "Come let us be grateful to the cheaters, for were it not for them we [who do not always respond to every appeal for tzedakah] would sin every day."

Other sages were not so forgiving. They resorted to cursing the cheaters in order to discourage fraud. The Mishnah (Pe'ah 8:9), for example, states:

Whoever does not need to take yet takes, will not depart from the world until he will be dependent on others... and whoever is not lame or blind and pretends to be, will not die of old age before he becomes like one of them, as it is written: "He who seeks evil, upon him it shall come" (Proverbs 11:27).

This warning was reiterated in four other places in rabbinic literature and was codified in the standard codes of Jewish law.

Yet, despite the fear of possible fraud, none of the sages refrained from giving tzedakah. After all, it is a positive commandment that, according to Rav Assi, is as important as all of the other commandments put together (Bava Batra 9a). Some later rabbis shared the liberal approach of Rabbi Chaim of Tzanz, a nineteenth-century hasidic rabbi: 

I give tzedakah to one hundred poor people on the assumption that I may find one out of a hundred who is worthy and I will have the merit of helping him. But you refrain from giving to one hundred poor people... lest one of them be unworthy. Therefore know that the average beggar who holds out his hand is presumed to need the money and you should not concern yourself with hidden matters.

The talmudic sages, however, were more careful with their tzedakah. They realized that if you give to everyone who asks for money, you ultimately deprive those who really need the money. They therefore took precautions against fraudulent beggars: 

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.