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 self-sufficiency.

Once again, 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."[1]

The 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."[2]

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." [3] 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."[4]

According 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."[5]


[1] JT Shekalim 5:4 [back]
[2] BT Shabbat 63a [back]
[3] ARN, 41:66a [back]
[4] BT Ketubbot 67b; MT-MA, 7:9 [back]
[5] MT-MA, 10:18 [back]

Byron L. Sherwin, Jewish Ethics for the Twenty-first Century: Living in the Image of God. Copyright © 2000 by Byron L.Sherwin (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press), pp.145-47. Permission of Syracuse University Press.

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