Shabbat Parashat Vayetzei| 5765
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Question: When disbursing the funds I give as ma’aser kesafim (the laudable practice of giving 10% of one’s net earnings to tzedaka), I am torn between giving smaller amounts to all who send requests and giving larger donations to fewer institutions.
Answer: There are different classical sources that stress different arguments on the serious question you raise. One can apply the values found in those sources to our present-day situation and, with some common sense, arrive at a reasonably balanced strategy.
The gemara (Eruvin 63a) strongly criticizes one who gives all of the donations that should be going to kohanim to one kohen. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 257:9) extends this rule to tzedaka, saying that one should not give all to only one poor person. Several other sources follow this direction, but there seem to be two main reasons for dispersing tzedaka among several recipients. The Bach (Orach Chayim 695), in explaining why we must give matanot la’evyonim to at least two people, says that it is important to bring sustenance to as many people as possible. The Rambam, on the mishna in Pikei Avot (3:15) that says that “it all follows the amount of action,” says that one’s attribute of generosity is developed more by giving more times to more people. Thus, while both encourage giving to multiple recipients, the former source stresses the physical welfare of the recipient, and the latter focuses on the spiritual welfare of the donor.
On the other hand, there are sources that stress the importance of giving to fewer recipients in the hope of reaching the higher level of helping a person or organization to reach the level of “dei machsoro” (enough to fill his needs) (see Tzedaka U’mishpat 3:(16)). That logic is stronger when the alternative is giving to so many people that no one gets a donation that significantly changes their predicament (see Bemareh Habazak IV, 89). However, when one can help more people reach their most basic needs as opposed to helping fewer people attain less critical provisions, the basic level of the many supersedes our desire to fulfill the preferred mitzva of dei machsoro. (See Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 264 that one gives first to his city’s poor only when they are in an equivalent situation to those of other cities; one does not make one set of poor a few levels better off than another.) There is another modern consideration that makes it preferable to give larger sums to fewer institutions. Each donation costs (the donor’s tzedaka account, if he has one, and) the organization money, including banking fees, mailings, and secretarial work. If one mails an organization a $5 check, it likely has no net gain. (A $5 bill for a door-to-door collector is an outright net gain for someone who already paid the expenses that got him to the door).
We should consider that most significant donations are given to organizations that help many individuals. This has a few advantages. One check reaches a large number of recipients, fulfilling the Bach’s concern. Yet the problem of not changing any individual’s situation is not so pertinent, as the nature of organizational tzedaka campaigns is to collect from many people so that, at the end, many people are helped significantly. On the other hand, to give all of one’s money to one source, even one that distributes to many, seems to be a problem from the Rambam’s perspective. What does it do to one’s neshama to receive 50 requests from worthy causes, representing different populations and needs, and throw 49 in the garbage? (We cannot presently address the question of ignoring altogether a plea for tzedaka; see Tzedaka U’mishpat 1:(3)). It is also possible that the organization with the most attractive campaign gets a disproportionate amount, and one who gives only to it misses out on entire groups in dire straits. It is healthy to “connect” with several causes and institutions, while trying to ensure that the amounts given are large enough to be helpful. As usual, balance is paramount.
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This edition of
Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of
R’ Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld o.b.m.