I live in a well-to-do Jewish community in New York. Every week, shlichim from Israel arrive soliciting funds for an endless variety of deserving institutions and projects. At the same time, we have many pressing needs in our own community. Can you give me some kind of guidance regarding what takes preference in matters of charity?
The mitzvah of charity, or tzedaka, is one of the most praiseworthy acts which an individual can do, as our Sages teach, “Great is the power of charity since from the beginning of Creation until today, the world has been sustained by charity.”
The deep heartfelt desire to help one’s fellow man is a genetic trait of the Jewish People, inherited from our forefather, Avraham, as the Torah testifies, “For I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him that they shall keep the way of Hashem, to perform charity and justice.”
By giving charity, a person raises himself out of his narrow personal sphere to be a partner with G-d in sustaining the world. In addition to bringing blessing to others, he brings great blessing on himself.
Basically, there are three rules in giving charity.
1. The needy take precedence. For instance, the poor come before the rich. Or, someone who needs food comes before someone who needs a new car.
2. A close relative comes before a distant relative or friend. In the same light, charity to a Jewish cause takes precedence over charity to non-Jewish causes.
3. The needs of your own community come before the needs of other communities.
The obvious question arises, which charity takes precedence when these areas overlap? For instance, suppose you have a choice between giving charity to a man who needs food for his family, or to your brother-in-law to buy a new BMW. In this case, the priority goes to the needy man, and not to your relative. Or, if your relative from Chicago needs money to pay for his daughter’s wedding, and your neighbor needs money for the very same cause, the tzedaka should be given to your out-of-town relative, and not to your neighbor, even though he is from your home town.
However, even if a seeker of charity does not belong to the top category, you should not send him away empty-handed, as it says, “Do not harden your heart and do not close your heart nor your hand to your impoverished brother.”
Following the above guidelines, if you have a debate to which yeshiva you should donate funds, you should give to the yeshiva to which you have the closest affiliation.
However, it must be noted that charities for causes in the Land of Israel take precedence over causes in the Diaspora.
How one donates charity is also important. The Rambam lists a scale of eight ways of giving:
1. The greatest level is to help a poor person get back on his feet, including helping a person to find gainful employment.
2. The giver does not know who the poor recipient is, and the recipient does not know the identity of the giver.
3. The giver knows but the recipient does not.
4. Both giver and recipient know each other’s identities.
5. Giving before the poor person asks.
6. Giving after he asks.
7. Not giving as much as the poor person needs.
8. The lowest level is giving in with a begrudging attitude.
Therefore, returning to your question, one should make every effort to welcome the shlichim who come from the Land of Israel, since the Jewish People will be redeemed through tzedaka, as the Prophet says, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those that return to her with tzedaka.” May the time of our final redemption come soon.
1. Tanna Debei Eliyahu Zuta, Ch. 1.
2. Genesis, 26:12.
3. Baba Metzia, 71A.
4. Deut: 15:7.
5. P'ninei Halacha by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, on Tzedaka.
6. Yoreh Deah, 251, Section 3.
7. Rambam, Laws of Charity, 10:7-13.
8. Isaiah, 1:27.