According to Maimonides' eight levels of charity, giving anonymously to a
poor person who does not know the identity of his benefactor is the next to
highest level of zedakah. It protects the dignity of the recipient
and expresses the altruism of the benefactor. However, according to [12th-century
philosopher, scholar and physician] Maimonides and many other sources, the
highest form of zedakah is not a gift but a loan. By giving a loan
or by entering into partnership with the needy person, his or her dignity
is preserved by allowing him or her to maintain at least a facade of self-sufficiency.
In such cases, to be sure, there is no requirement or even an expectation
that the loan be repaid. Nor is any interest attached to the loan. The goal
of this form of zedakah is to preserve the dignity of the needy and to help
extricate him or her from being needy, to allow him or her to attain economic
in the case of giving zedakah as a loan, one finds a special sensitivity
toward the needs of the previously wealthy. For example, a talmudic text recounts
that Rabbi Jonah examined how to fulfill the mitzvah of zedakah. "What
did Rabbi Jonah do? When he saw a previously wealthy poor person he would
say: I have heard that you have inherited some wealth. Take this loan now
and you will repay me. After he took it, he [Rabbi Jonah] would say: It is
a gift for you."
view that a loan is better than a gift has firm talmudic precedent:
"He who lends [money to the poor] is greater than he who gives
a charitable gift; and he who forms a partnership [with the poor]
is greater than all."
On this text,
Rashi commented that a loan is better than a gift because a poor person, who
might be ashamed to accept a gift, would readily agree to a loan. Also, a
donor might be willing to make a loan of a greater sum than he might be willing
to make a gift. A second text succinctly states, "One who gives zedakah,
many blessings come upon him; superior to him is one who lends his funds [to
the poor]; superior to all is one [who forms a partnership with the poor]
on terms of half the profits [for each] or on terms of sharing what remains."
According to a number of sources, lending is superior to giving because loans
are common between the rich as well as the poor, whereas zedakah is for the
poor alone. A dole demeans by the very fact that the recipient is on a level
subordinate to that of the donor, but in the case of a loan, both parties
are deemed equal. Such loans were, of course, free of interest.
The aim of
giving loans to the poor was to help them to exchange dependency for self-sufficiency.
Just as rabbinic sources were concerned about the need to rescue the poor
from indigency, so are they preoccupied with the need to prevent one from
sliding into poverty. Zedakah was not only to be therapeutic but preventive
as well. Commenting on the phrase in Leviticus (25:35), "then you shall
uphold him," [12-century commentator] Rashi warned, "Do not let
him come down until he falls [completely] for then it will be difficult to
raise him. Rather, uphold him at the time that his means [begin to] fail.
To what is this comparable? To a burden that rests on a donkey. While it is
still on the donkey one [person can] hold it and set it back in place, but
if it fell to the ground even five people cannot set it back in its place."
To make sure
that communal funds were distributed to the truly needy, means to investigate
the authenticity of need were developed and employed
. Community officials
would investigate the claims of potential clients seeking communal welfare
to remove imposters from community welfare roles. Besides admonishing and
seeking to unmask imposters, Maimonides dealt with the case of the truly needy
person who hesitates or refuses to accept aid. In such a case, Maimonides
counseled that aid should be given as a gift or as a loan. Maimonides' source
seems to be this talmudic statement: "Our rabbis taught: If a person
has no means and does not wish to be maintained [out of the poor funds] he
should be granted [the sum he requires as] a loan and it can be presented
to him as a gift; so [says] Rabbi Meir. The sages however said that it is
given to him as a gift and then it is granted to him as a loan."
to Maimonides, who relied on talmudic sources, the deceiver is accursed. The
indigent individual who is too proud to accept help needed for survival is
self-destructive. The truly needy, however, is entitled to receive what is
needed. Nevertheless, every effort must be made before one begins to receive
public aid. "One should always restrain oneself and submit to privation
rather than be dependent upon other people or cast himself upon public charity."
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