With the multitude of tzedaka appeals, fundraising dinners, and headstart campaigns that we encounter on a daily basis, most people, even with the best of intentions, are simply unable to give tzedaka to everyone that requests it of them. There is a need to be selective and make a decision – when to give and when not to give. Indeed, Chazal set guidelines as to how to determine who takes precedence when it comes to giving tzedaka. This essay will explore whether those guidelines were meant to be an absolute requirement, or whether they merely outline a recommendation. Additionally, we will explore the precise nature of their application in contemporary society.
The Greatest Level of Tzedaka
When faced with the question of how to prioritize our giving of tzedaka, it would be prudent to begin with the question of what form of tzedaka would constitute the greatest fulfilment of the mitzvah. Regarding this point we are faced with somewhat of a contradiction in the Shulchan Aruch. Throughout Hilchot Tzedaka (which spans simanim 247 – 259 in Yoreh Deah) we find no less than four separate halachot that each seem to highlight a different suggestion as to the greatest form of tzedaka.
The Shulchan Aruch writes:
שמונה מעלות יש בצדקה, זו למעלה מזו: מעלה הגדולה שאין למעלה ממנה, המחזיק ביד ישראל המך ונותן לו מתנה, או הלואה, או עושה שותפות, או ממציא לו מלאכה כדי לחזק ידו שלא יצטרך לבריות ולא ישאל, ועל זה נאמר: והחזקת בו.
There are eight levels of tzedaka, each greater than the next. The highest level above which there is no greater one is one who supports an impoverished Jew and gives him a present or loan or partnership or provides him with employment in order to strengthen his hand that he should not be reliant on others and should not need to ask. About this it is written: “And you shall strengthen him.”
The Shulchan Aruch codifies the eight levels of tzedaka as defined by the Rambam, in which the highest level is one who provides another with the ability to earn his own living, rather than remaining reliant on handouts from others.
Later in the same siman, the Shulchan Aruch writes that gabbaei tzedaka (those responsible for the tzedaka funds) should allocate their funds for the marriage of poor individuals, for there is no greater tzedaka than this.
In the very next halacha the Shulchan Aruch writes:
יש מי שאומר שמצות בית הכנסת עדיפא ממצות צדקה, ומצות צדקה לנערים ללמוד תורה או לחולים עניים, עדיף ממצות בית הכנסת.
There are those who say that the mitzvah of a beit knesset (synagogue) is preferable to the mitzvah of tzedaka. And the mitzvah of giving tzedaka to youths learning Torah or to those who are sick and poor is preferable to the mitzvah of [supporting] a beit knesset.
This halacha is comprised of two statements. The first (quoted in the name of some authorities) states that the mitzvah of beit knesset takes priority over the mitzvah of tzedaka. The second statement (which is agreed upon by all) indicates that certain forms of tzedaka would take priority even over the building of a beit knesset. We can thus extrapolate that these forms of tzedaka are indeed on a higher level than all others. While not stating so explicitly, the Shulchan Aruch has provided us with a third suggestion of the highest form of tzedaka – providing financial support to young people learning Torah or providing for the needs of the poor and sick.
Elsewhere, the Shulchan Aruch discusses the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim (redeeming of captives). Although these halachot appear in a different siman, they still fall under the general title of Hilchot Tzedaka in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch, indicating that they too are part of the mitzvah of tzedaka. The Shulchan Aruch implies here as well that this mitzvah would be the greatest fulfilment of the mitzvah of tzedaka:
ואין מצוה גדולה כפדיון שבויים.
“There is no mitzvah as great as the redeeming of captives.”
How are we to resolve the seeming contradiction between these four sources?
One could suggest a distinction between the way in which tzedaka is given and to whom it is to be given. In the first halacha mentioned above, the Shulchan Aruch is describing the levels with regard to how one performs the mitzvah, without addressing the question of who the recipient should be. The rest of the sources deal with how and where the tzedaka funds should be allocated.
However, this only explains the first source but fails to resolve the apparent contradiction between the other three. In order to do that, we need to define the mitzvah of tzedaka on its most basic level.
Defining the Mitzvah of Tzedaka
Contrary to what we may have thought, not every case of donating money to a worthy cause may actually fulfill the technical requirement of the mitzvah of tzedaka. The name of “Hilchot Tzedaka” given to these laws in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch may be indicative of a broader category of mitzvot that one fulfills when making donations to other causes (including pidyon shevuyim, talmud Torah, building of a beit knesset, and supporting a chatan and kallah). However, the actual mitzvah of tzedaka is reserved for the act of giving money to the poor, and providing for an individual who is unable to support himself. This is certainly the context of the Torah’s directive to give tzedaka, and a close reading of the Rambam would seem to support this idea as well. The Rambam defines the mitzvah of tzedaka as “giving tzedaka to the poor” and throughout these halachot, he only writes about this mitzvah in the context of supporting the impoverished. The other causes for donations, mentioned above, would fulfill the requirements of their own mitzvot, but not that of tzedaka.
We can now understand that the Shulchan Aruch contains no contradiction regarding the highest level of tzedaka. Pidyon shevuyim takes precedence over other mitzvot because it is based on the principle of pikuach nefesh – saving a life. Providing for youths who learn Torah may take precedence over other mitzvot based on the principle that תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם. Regarding providing for the poor and sick, this may take precedence over other forms of tzedaka as it constitutes a fulfillment not just of one mitzvah but of two: providing for the poor (tzedaka) and contributing towards healing the sick.
What we have learned is that when it comes to priorities in donating money to charitable causes, two distinct questions need to be answered:
- What is the order of priority among these various mitzvot? (pidyon shevuyim, talmud Torah, beit knesset, tzedaka)
- Regarding the mitzvah of tzedaka specifically, which of the poor take precedence when it comes to allocating the funds?
Another important idea that emerges from this discussion is that one should be careful that at least some of the funds that he donates to charitable causes should be given to the poor. A hypothetical situation could emerge in which one donates money to various institutions, yeshivot, hospitals and other charities, but while certainly fulfilling a mitzvah in supporting these causes, he has unwittingly neglected to fulfill the specific mitzvah of tzedaka. As Rav Asher Weiss writes:
דאף דהמעלה הגדולה ביותר היא ליתן לצורך ת”ת אין זה אלא כשיש לפניו שתי המצוות ואין מעותיו מספיקין אלא או לעניים או לת”ת אבל המפריש כל מעותיו להחזקת התורה בלבד ואינו נותן דבר לעניים עושה שלא כהוגן, דאטו יבטל לגמרי מצות צדקה משום החזקת התורה. וכי מצוה אחת דוחה חברתה? והלא מצות הצדקה בפשטותה צדקה לעניים הוא… וא”כ פשוט דעל כל אדם לקיים גם מצות צדקה כפשטותה דהיינו ליתן צדקה לעניים ולגמילות חסדים ואינו יוצא יד”ח בחיזוק מוסדות התורה בלבד, אלא אחוז בזה וגם מזה אל תנח ידך.
Even though the greatest level is to give money in support of talmud Torah, that is only when one is faced with two mitzvot and is lacking the means to provide for both the poor and for Torah study. However, one who [has enough for both] and donates all his money only for supporting Torah and gives nothing to the poor has acted in an improper manner… One mitzvah does not nullify another and the simple meaning of the mitzvah of tzedaka is providing for the poor.
Priorities in Giving – A Recommendation or an Obligation?
The order of priorities when it comes to selecting a poor person to whom to give tzedaka is delineated in the Sifrei based on the pasuk:
כִּֽי־יִהְיֶה֩ בְךָ֨ אֶבְי֜וֹן מֵאַחַ֤ד אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ בְּאַחַ֣ד שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּאַ֨רְצְךָ֔…
The Sifrei derives from the sequence of words in this pasuk that the order of priority is:
- One who is more needy
- A closer relative
- The poor of one’s own city
- The poor of Eretz Yisrael
The poskim point out based on this that allowance should always be made to give much of one’s tzedaka funds to one who is poorer and requires it more. Only when dealing with a case where several individuals face the same degree of need do the questions of priority and degree of closeness between them become relevant. To this end, when faced with competing claims for tzedaka, it is important to ascertain that the money is being directed towards a genuine need of sustenance and not towards additional luxuries. In fact the Shevet HaLevi laments the fact that in many instances tzedaka is collected for purposes which can only be defined as excesses, and this would constitute dishonesty.
How strict does one have to be in following the guidelines set down by the Sifrei as to how to allocate one’s tzedaka money?
Perhaps the fact that this order of priority appears only in the Sifrei but not in the Talmud is indicative of a less than binding nature. In the Talmud we do find a statement regarding the allocation of matnot kehuna – presents that were allocated to the kohanim. One is free to decide which kohen to give these gifts to, but the Gemara implores one not to give all his gifts to a single kohen, as this would lead to starvation in the world. The provision of these gifts is meant to ensure that all the kohanim have their basic needs met. In a similar way, the aim of tzedaka is to provide for all members of society. It would thus be inappropriate that all of one’s tzedaka should be given to one individual; rather, it should be divided among the poor that need it. Just as we said earlier that one should not neglect to perform each of the various mitzvot which involve donating to charitable causes, so too within the mitzvah of tzedaka one should be careful to split one’s resources among the poor. The order of priority is thus a recommendation of where to start giving, but by no means a limitation not to give to others further down the list.
Rav Moshe Feinstein takes the comparison between the matnot kehuna and tzedaka one step further. In the same way that an individual is free to choose to which kohen his gifts should go, so too he is free to decide to whom to give his tzedaka. The order of priority is neither an obligation nor even a recommendation when it comes to an individual. However, regarding gabbaei tzedaka, those who are charged with the responsibility of allocating the community’s tzedaka funds, the rules set out in the Sifrei are meant to guide them as to how to allocate those funds appropriately. The guidelines were given to ensure that every member of society is taken care of appropriately. By being followed by the representatives of the community whose job it is to allocate the funds, this goal will surely be attained.
In our days, the precise order given by the Sifrei may no longer be as relevant. As alluded to above, priority for tzedaka was given to those in closer proximity to the giver in order to ensure that everyone was taken care of. Only if every community made sure to support the poor who were nearby could it be ensured that no one was left behind. However, nowadays in an age of mass travel and instant communication, when appeals have global reach, that can no longer be said to be true. Thus there is even more room for one to allocate tzedaka to the recipient of one’s choice, even if he is not strictly speaking “next in line.”
We have seen that despite the clear guidelines and order of priority set out by the Sifrei, there is a need to spread out one’s tzedaka funds, and there is certainly no prohibition in deviating somewhat from the list. Whether one follows this exact order or not, the giving of tzedaka should contribute to the ultimate goal of the mitzvah – וחי אחיך עמך.
 Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 249:6
 Ibid., 249:15
 Ibid., 249:16
 This refers to the mitzvah of building a beit knesset, and possibly to the costs involved in its upkeep as well.
 Siman 452
 As found in Parshat Behar and Parshat Re’eh
 Which are found under the category of “gifts to the poor.”
 This idea can also be seen in the comments of the Rema regarding how one may allocate money reserved for ma’aser kesafim. The Rema writes (Yoreh Deah 249:1) that ma’aser money may not be used for other mitzvot (such as for candles in a beit knesset) but may only be given to the poor. Thus, we see once again the definition of tzedaka as money given to support the destitute. See also Derisha who argues that one may use ma’aser money towards the fulfilment of other mitzvot.
 Mishnah, Peah 1:1
 This may constitute the mitzvah of hashavat aveida or gemilut chassadim. For further details and an alternative explanation, see Minchat Asher, Devarim siman 21.
 Minchat Asher, ibid.
 Devarim, Parshat Re’eh 116
 Devarim 15:7
 Teshuvot Vehanhagot 1:567
 Responsa Shevet HaLevi 4:130
 Eiruvin 63a
 See Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 257:16, who makes explicit mention of the above-quoted Gemara in the context of the mitzvah of tzedaka.
 Igrot Moshe, Y.D. 1:144