Apart from borrowing and lending, the Torah’s moral framework encompasses the giving and receipt of tzedakah, a word which connotes righteousness.
Precedence for tzedakah goes first to one’s poor relatives, next the poor of one’s city, next the poor of the Land of Israel, and finally the poor of other cities. Poor Torah scholars also have precedence over other poor. The principle is that you have more responsibility to care for the needs of those closer to yourself, by relation or by physical proximity, than those farther away. If their needs are fully met, you can turn your attention to Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel and Torah study, in both of which every Jew has a vested interest. One approach is to give a third of one’s tzedakah to the poor, a third to Torah scholars and yeshivot and a third to institutions that strengthen the Jewish people by addressing some unmet need, be it in health, special education, help for those in need of emotional support or other social or public goods such as synagogues. One should consult his conscience and his rabbi.
Along with whom to give one’s tzedakah to arises the issue of who should take it. Just as the Torah requires us to help the poor, it enjoins the poor from seeking assistance when an alternative means of self-support is possible. As the Sages tell us, it is better to skin the hides of animal carcasses than to ask for charity, no matter how high one’s station and accomplishments.
But as the poor will always remain a part of society, some will have a need to take charity. The rabbis estimated that anyone with enough money for a year’s worth of basic food and clothing, for oneself and one’s spouse, has no right to accept charity. But someone using that money to make a profit can accept as much business capital as the circumstances in his time and place warrant.
In principle, a poor person must be sustained in accordance with his standard of living, even if he had become accustomed to extravagances when previously wealthy. The Torah tells us to give him “enough for what he lacks.” The goal of charity is to meet what the poor’s needs are, not to meet what the giver thinks his needs shouldbe.
While the rich may be able to dispense enough to meet this high standard, one who has limited resources for his own needs can’t afford to spend it all on charity. The Sages forbade someone who can’t afford to do so to give more than a fifth of one’s income to charity, absent a present need, lest the donor come to be in need of tzedakah from others. Failing to give at least a tenth of one’s income, however, is regarded as miserly. Thus while the Torah mitzvah of tithing relates to the produce of one’s field, tithing one’s income (ma’asar kesafim) is also regarded as obligatory.
Finally, how one gives charity is also significant. As mentioned above, the Rambam sees as the worthiest form of giving strengthening someone in his business, via a gift or loan, that will help him maintain his independence. So, for example, one could fulfill this by purchasing a service or product, perhaps at a higher than normal price, from someone who needs the business, providing the money he needs while sparing the recipient the shame of having to rely on handouts.
Other methods of giving find other ways to minimize the pain due to the embarrassing situation of accepting charity. By giving to the poor without knowing who is taking from it, the poor escape the shame of being a known beneficiary of charity. By giving anonymously, the poor are spared the feeling of indebtedness. Or by speaking kindly to the beggar, he is reminded that many reached his position through no fault of their own, and many of them later recovered financially.
Other considerations include whether to give larger, more meaningful gifts or more numerous smaller gifts. These decisions require individual thought. The Rambam suggests for example that giving more frequent gifts carries the benefit of training one’s heart to be charitable. And yet there are circumstances where the impact of a bigger gift is clearly warranted: for instance, redemption of captives has precedence over the ordinary needs of the poor. Similarly in modern times, when the former Soviet Union relaxed restrictions on the right of Jews to leave for Israel, which then faced the astronomic costs of settling nearly 1 million people, a large sum was needed to meet all the immigrants’ needs quickly before a future leader might reconsider the move. Another way to donate impactfully is to seek to identify charitable organizations with small donor bases in which case one’s gift really makes a difference.
Giving charity and tithing are not only to the recipient’s benefit, but the giver’s as well. The Sages tell us that the poor person does more for the donor than the donor does for the poor person. In this spirit we may read such statements as “tithes are a protective fence for wealth” and “tithe so that you may become wealthy.” Adding an element of financial planning to charity, the Vilna Gaon is reported to have said the promise for wealth is limited to one giving a full fifth of his income to charity, while one who gives a tenth is promised only the preservation of his present wealth.
The Sages say that a person’s income, as well as his losses, are decided on Rosh Hashanah, the yearly day of judgment. One who fails to give the amount expected of him will find it taken from him in less pleasant ways. In an illustrative tale, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai learned in a dream what loss his nephews were expected to suffer that year, and pressed them to give it to charity throughout the year. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the tax collector confiscated exactly what amount they had failed to give.
Another story tells of a new heir whose greed turned him away from his father’s advice to tithe his field. As he began to reduce his tithing from one tenth to slightly less, so did the field decrease its production. This led him to again reduce the proportion of his tithes, upon which the field did the same. When his field finally reached one tenth of its original output, his family came to offer him ironic congratulations for his upgrade in social status – he was now receiving a priest’s due.
The above stories illustrate the virtue, and necessity, of tithing. Charity comes from the heart, but tithes come from the pocket. The Torah demands we have pity for the poor person standing in front of us, but doesn’t rely on however much compassion his plight manages to inspire in us. It gives guidelines as to what the correct amount of our wealth to give is, to balance our needs with those of the poor.
The Torah seeks an “olam chesed,” a world of kindness, where we use our resources to strengthen the needy, through loans, gifts and tzedakah. Our goal is not to accumulate wealth but to use such wealth as we have been given to make the world a better place. As the prophet Yirmiyahu says: “let not the wealthy man boast of his wealth.” Of what may one boast? Knowing Hashem, “Who does kindness, justice and righteousness [tzedakah] on the earth.”
It is a cliché to say you don’t take your money with you to the grave. But by contrast, you do take your tzedakah with you to the next world. Perhaps the reason for its protective value is that one who gives tzedakah conditions himself to be a better person, and so becomes more worthy of lenience in judgment. Tzedakah thus pays: in this world and the next.
 Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 251:3,9.
 Rabbi Moshe Cohen, Aish HaTorah Los Angeles, noted having received this tradition from his teachers.
 Hilchot Mattenot Aniyyim 10:18.
 Rash, Peah 8:8.
 Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 253:2.
 Devarim 15:8.
 Ketubbot 50a.
 Hilchot Mattenot Aniyyim 7:5.
 The Rambam ranks eight ways of giving charity in Hilchot Mattenot Aniyyim 10:7-14.
 Commentary to Avot 3:15 (compare Hilchot Deot 1:5).
 Hilchot Mattenot Aniyyim 8:10.
 Recommended by HaRav Shimon Bollag, ztz”l.
 Rut Rabbah 5:9.
 Avot 3:13.
 Ta’anit 9a.
 Orchot Chayyim / Keter Rosh 123. The Vilna Gaon (commentary to Yoreh Deah 149:1; Shenot Eliyyahu, Peah 1:1) holds that tithing income is a Torah-level obligation. Other opinions who hold that only tithing produce is a Torah-level obligation are divided as to whether it is permitted to test God for blessing as a result of tithing income (see Rama, Yoreh Deah 247:4; Pitchei Teshuvah 247:2; Sedei Chemed, nun, 16).
 Bava Batra 10a.
 Vayyikra Rabbah 15:7.
 Devarim 15:7.
 Tehillim 89:3.