"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly

"During my trip, I went to Jerusalem for Shabbat. I was amazed how many people asking for charity there were in the streets on Friday. Can it really be that they are all genuine? Must I give to each one who approaches me, even if I don't have a good feeling about him?"

Wendy Huttner, Capetown

You have raised an important point, Wendy, which many visitors and residents wonder about. Before discussing it in depth, let me briefly state my personal opinion that you (and every Jew) should give to anyone that claims to need, especially in Israel. If you have suspicions, give less, even just a small coin.

Now, here's why I think so.

There is a passage, [Deut. 15:7-11]: ...In the land G-d is giving you, do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy brother...Give readily and do not feel bad about it...There will never cease to be needy people in the land, so open your hand generously to your poor brothers...

From this we see there is a positive commandment to give to a needy fellow-Jew, as well as a negative one not to refuse. One who turns away empty-handed another Jew who is truly needy, especially "in The Land," transgresses both these commandments.  (Of course, to help a needy non-Jew is also a good deed, as confirmed by the Code of Law [II, 251:1], but it is not a mitzvah, a must, prescribed by the Torah, as it is to give to a fellow-Jew.)

Although the end of the quote above stresses generously, in such a situation as you describe, we have to consider the number of outstretched hands, the degree of credibility, and your available resources.  A minimal donation keeps one within the parameter of Jewish law [ibid, 249:4], and sometimes may even be preferable [ibid, 250:3].

It is also important to keep in mind that a vital part of the mitzvah of giving is how we give.  It must be done with caring graciousness [ibid, 249:3].  This you can always accomplish with a few nice words no matter how small your gift.  Be sincere; after all, he is giving you the opportunity to fulfill G-d's will.

If you think about it, even if some of the people collecting are not legitimate, in a certain sense we nevertheless have to be grateful to them.  So many people come up to us and we give each one a coin.  How can we justify giving mere coins to someone we know is in need of basic necessities?

Obviously, this is an idea that can be taken too far.  As a Chassidic Rebbe once said: The merit of tzedakah is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy.  Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving to 100 beggars in case one might be a fraud.

The Talmud [Baba Batra 9b (based on Prov. 2:21)] tells us that only the righteous are so blessed that their tzedakah is always true tzedakah.  A normal person has no such guarantee.  abd while it is desirable to think well of everyone, no one wants to be deceived.  The best we can do is weigh the potential loss against the potential gain.

Try not to pre-judge the situation when you see so many hands, or because some of those collecting seem affluent.  Unfortunately, there are huge numbers of impoverished people in Jerusalem, most of whom nobody sees.  Some of the collectors you see are doing it for others, not for themselves.

If it should be that the recipient of your donation is not really deserving... well, ultimately, that's his problem!  At least you tried to do your share in the mitzvah.

Above all, always remember to be grateful that your share is the giving end, and to be worthy of this responsibility.

Yrachmiel Tilles
co-founder, Ascent Seminars of Safed
Editor, Ascent Quarterly

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