Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Financial Laws and Tzedaka
To dedicate this lesson

Charitable Giving


Rabbi Berel Wein

Av 5768
One of the hallmarks of Jewish life is charitable giving. The Torah emphasizes this mitzvah of charitable giving numerous times. It is one of the identifying features of Jews according to the Talmud. In our time, charitable giving has become more organized, especially in the Diaspora. Most donors never face the indigent person that their money is meant to help. Thus, to a great extent, charitable giving has become impersonal, unemotional and eventually tiring and boring. It may very well be that in our modern society, organizational giving is the efficient and most practical way to go. But its facelessness and blandness deprives both the giver and the recipient of the connection to each other that was part of the Torah’s intent in commanding us to participate constantly in charitable giving.

In my synagogue there are "collectors" who appear daily at the prayer services to collect charity. Some of these people are clearly collecting money for themselves and their families. Others may be collecting for charity funds that they maintain and distribute to the needy. Usually the amount given to these people is a small coin - a half shekel or a full shekel. But the personal interaction between the giver and the taker makes for a meaningful experience, at least to me. Giving a greater amount to an institution no matter how worthy and no matter how large the check remains essentially an impersonal experience. One has accomplished a great mitzvah through this donation but its impersonal nature often leaves the giver with a feeling of incompleteness.

Having been a fund raiser all of my professional life - for after all this is always part of the duties of being a communal rabbi - I long ago learned that people really give money to other people. Mailings, drives, phone calls (usually annoying ones at odd times of the day) and other usual methods of fundraising all have a place in our current world of charitable giving. But they are never as successful or meaningful as personal visits and contacts.

The Talmud records for us that Rabbi Akiva was "the hand of the poor." He stretched his hand forward to receive funds to distribute to the poor. People gave to Rabbi Akiva, to his hand, knowing that he represented the poor but also knowing that they had the privilege to give to a great person - Rabbi Akiva. The most successful fundraisers I have known are people who really and truly care about the donor and his or her welfare as much as they do about the cause or recipient that will eventually benefit from the donation. It is the personal relationship that seals the deal because as I mentioned above people give to people.

I knew a great man who for decades was the executive vice president and leading fundraiser for one of the great institutions of Torah learning in the United States. He later moved to Israel and became a fundraiser for an Israeli educational institution. When he made his annual fundraising trip to the United States he visited all of his old clients. Everyone gave him their usual donation to his new cause, not because they were particularly enamored of this institution but rather because they were giving him their donation. He was their friend and therefore their giving was motivated by that personal relationship between them.

Basically we live in a world that is becoming more and more impersonal in many ways. The internet and e-mail has become the favored method of communication between people. There is nothing more impersonal than this type of communication. And the more impersonal communication is between people the less likely charitable giving will increase relative to the improving economy and standards of living here in Israel.

Charitable giving has to be made a value in our society. Education and home practices can advance it. So can personal connections and empathy between all of the classes in our society. For we are taught that "charity can save one from death" - both for the giver and the taker.
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