Beyond Maimonides’ 8 Levels of Giving

by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

How much charity should I give and whom should I give it to?

These are two questions I spent some time thinking about at this year’s General Assembly in New Orleans. They seem basic enough, but they are incredibly complex.

Consider the question of how much should I give? The Bible commands a tithe for the poor, and this has extended to modern times. But what, exactly, am I tithing? Is this 10% of my income or assets? Before or after taxes? Net of losses? It gets complex very quickly.

Of course, Jewish tradition has much to say about these questions, and the answers aren’t always clear. For instance, take this question: Should I focus my giving on 1-2 recipients, or should I spread my limited dollars among many causes? Maimonides offers one approach:

“If a person gives 1,000 coins at one time and to one person, this is inferior to the one who gives 1,000 times with 1,000 coins … for the latter case multiplies the spirit of generosity 1,000 times over, while giving just once will arouse awaken the spirit of generosity once, and then it ends.” – Commentary to Mishna Avot 3:15

In short, says the Rambam, give small amounts over and over, for it will shape you into a more generous person.

But R. Yaakov Emden (Germany, 18th c.) takes issue with the Rambam.

“There is more reward in giving 100 coins all at once (to one person), for two reasons. First, one conquers one’s will more by giving a large sum of charity, which is very weighty, than by giving smaller sums, which are not that weighty on him. Even if one gives small sums (to multiple recipients) all at once, it does not conquer the will. How much the more so one who gives those small sums (to multiple recipients) over a period of time.

And from the perspective of the recipient, it is also better (to receive more). Because it is better to give to a poor person enough to make a living from, rather than giving to many poor people, none of whom will receive enough benefit to really earn a living…” – Lehem Shamayim, Avot 3:15

R. Emden, known as Yaavetz (his initials), claims one actually becomes a more generous person by giving large sums, which make a real impression on the donor. In addition, a large sum makes more of a difference to the recipient than smaller sums, from which no one really benefits all that much. (For more on this debate, click here).

We often call tzedakah a “Jewish value,” but the specifics of how we give tzedakah is a lively debate in the sources. Moving beyond Maimonides’ famous “8 levels of giving” to investigate the tradition more deeply might enrich the conversation around how to give strategically.

Finally, in an age where almost everything is shared on Facebook, information on giving is still largely secret. Wealthy individuals with foundations are compelled by the IRS to reveal the recipients of their charitable giving, but even they are not compelled to report what percentage of their income (or assets) they are donating. And the rest of us don’t have to make public any of our giving.

Contrast this to charity in an agricultural society. If land and livestock were markers of wealth, then everyone could plainly see the “net worth” of their neighbor. Since charity was designated by leaving a corner of the field, everyone could see how much each farmer decided to designate to charity. My bet is this form of public accountability encourages a more robust engagement with giving. But in today’s economy, all remains a secret.

Imagine a world in which all people – not just the super-wealthy – shared their tzedakah practices on their Facebook profile: how much they donated of their income/assets, where they directed the funds, and why. This would serve to deepen the conversation around giving and compel each giver to think more clearly about the choices he makes.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar and author of “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities” (Jewish Lights).