Friday, November 25, 2011

Better to Give?

A quick thought that came to me as I woke up this morning:

Do we gauge the value of tzedakah based on what the recipient gets, or based on what the donor provides?

From a utilitarian ["Did the indigent receive help"] perspective, we would look at the benefit to the recipient – if I give him something he can’t use, there’s no mitzvah. If someone is starving and I give him a roll of gift wrap, I have not fulfilled my obligation. After all, the biblical mandate of די מחסורו, “Give whatever he lacks,” dictates that I base my gift on his needs.

On the other hand, from a mitzvah ["Did you fulfill your obligation"] perspective we do calculate based on what I give. Case: If I give an indigent person a ride to his relatives for Yom Tov, and it’s a 200 mile trip so that I saved him a great deal of money, that’s a tzedakah contribution. However, if I was going in that direction anyway then I can’t count that toward my maaser kesafim, my 10% tithe, because I didn’t actually give away anything.

Perhaps it’s a difference between the mitzvah of tzedakah and the practice of maaser kesafim, of tithing my income. For tzedakah purposes, we gauge by the recipient. For maaser, we gauge based on what I gave?

I think there’s a lot more to say here, but it’s time to go. Perhaps I'll add more later.


  1. This might have to do with the classic question: better to give $100 to one person and make a meaningful difference to the recipient, or $1 to each of a hundred people and make a meaningful difference to the giver's heart and fist which is being opened a hundred times.

  2. I think you're right... Tzedakah has traditionally been obligatory based on the needs and standards of the recipient. (Although the Chinuch 66 says in the opening line that you lend accorsing to 1. What the lender can afford and 2. What the recipient needs). But the innovation of maaser kesafim turns the whole thing on its head ... To donate a percent of assets/income REGARDLESS if there is a needy person in front of you. And the twist is that maaser money arguably, depending upon whom one asks, doesn't even have to go to poor people and may possibly be used for torah institutions and nonobligatory personal mitzvah purposes.

  3. You really need to be reading the audioroundup more :-)



    Joel Rich

  4. Melech-
    Indeed. There's a lot more I could/should add to this post... someday.

    Sorry, haven't been keeping up. But I rarely have a chance to listen to audio shiurim, sorry to say.

  5. The word "utilitarian" caught my attention. They don't have a rights based viewpoint. There are no natural right from where they come from and although i enjoyed many of the good points of john student mill i don't think i can accept a doctrine that does not have natural rights in it.
    As for your basic point-it seems to me to be based on the question of intention as opposed to consequence. consequence here would mean the value of the mitzvah depends only on how much of the needs of the poor man were fulfilled. Intention means how much you really meant to help. from what i can tell the rambam probably held that charity is a mitzvah in which both matter

  6. I agree with Adam Zur's distinction between intention and consequence, and that both matter.

    I would add that human beings don't really have ultimate control over consequence, only intention. As to how God views us when we act intending to do a mitzvah and fail to achieve the desired consequence, I just argued that God considers us as having succeeded, even if we don't :

    This also reminds me of the vort about "Gomeil chasadim tovim", where only God's chasadim are "tovim", because human chesed, though lovingly intended, does not always achieve a good result.

    Finally, perhaps a gift which is no cost to the giver is not tzedakah at all, but gemilut chasadim.

  7. Adam, Michael-
    That's what I had in mind, but I don't think both matter in the same element of tzedakah. Cf the Sifri that I can fulfill tzedakah via a coin that falls from my pocket without my knowledge.