Tzedakah: To Whom Should You Give?

Posted on December 11, 2019

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

I bet you too have recently received lots of phone calls, emails, and letters recently from charities asking for your money. Fine charities. Worthy charities. But so many charities. The flood began recently with Giving Tuesday and will continue through the end of the year. This raises an important question: to whom should we give?  

I explored the question with my seventh graders in my New Jersey religious school by conducting an experiment. I identified a few charities that focused on different needs, each with a Jewish and non-Jewish counterpart. For example, I would introduce the International Red Cross and Magen David Adom (The “Red Cross” in Israel). Then I asked the students to write “checks” totaling $100. If a student felt each charity is equally important, then they would all get $16. But if a student felt one is superior, that charity alone might receive almost $100. It was up to the kids.

The following week I shared the totals with them to see how they allocated their dollars, and we discussed. I asked them if they think it’s more important to share with Jewish causes or general causes, and most said general causes. They said we Jews are citizens of the world and have a responsibility to care for the world at large. And they were not wrong, I said (and believe). I reminded them that the Torah says that all people are created in G-d’s image. This is said about Adam and Eve, who were not Jewish but simply human beings.  

There’s also the line from the Talmud, Gittin 61A: “We sustain non-Jewish poor with Jewish poor … for the sake of peace.” Giving to local and global causes is itself a Jewish value. 

The students sometimes hesitated to make a case to give to Jewish causes. Perhaps because it feels tribal, which has a negative connotation.  But the funny thing is how they voted with their “dollars”: about 45% of their “charity” went to Jewish causes. After realizing this they might have said that if we Jews don’t care for our own, who will? They were not wrong, I said again. And believe.  

The Talmud in Bava Metzia 71A says, 

“If you lend money to a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich, the poor takes precedence; your poor and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another city, the poor of your city have priority.” 

The Talmud teaches that we have to first care for our own. There’s nothing at all provincial about caring for family first; the Jewish world is our extended family.

In the end, I think we have a Jewish responsibility to give to both Jewish and general causes in about a 50/50 distribution. Fortunately, we can split up our dollars. It’s not all or nothing.  

Giving to both Jewish and general causes is how I put these teachings together. We should always be aware of our Jewish backgrounds and responsibilities toward our own community while not being so narrow-minded that we neglect the world around us. That sounds simple to do, but it’s not at all. 

Best of luck navigating that path in your own giving this year and beyond. The exciting thing is that you get to choose what percentage of your dollars to allocate to the causes that matter to you.

For a practical guide to giving to charity, consider this article from Money Magazine I found helpful: 

On a related charity topic, check out my sermon about how to best assist beggars on the street:

Shabbat Shalom.