1. There was a pious man who was quite charitable, helping all those in need. Once, he set out in a boat and a storm came and sank his boat in the sea. Rabbi Akiva witnessed the event and went to report the tragic news, but before he could tell anyone, he looked up and there was the man standing before him.
“Aren’t you the one who went down in the sea?” Rabbi Akiva asked him.
“Yes, I am the same,” he replied.
“And who raised you out of the sea?” Rabbi Akiva asked.
“The charity I practiced raised me out of the sea,” the man said. “How do you know this?” Rabbi Akiva asked him.
The man told him, “When I sank to the depths, I heard the great roar of the waves of the sea, one wave calling to another, ‘Hurry, let us raise this man out of the sea for he practices charity every day of his life.”’
Rabbi Akiva smiled and declared, “Blessed be God, the God of Israel, Who has chosen the words of the Torah and the words of the Sages, and established them forever and to all eternity, for it is written, `Cast your bread upon the waters, and you shall find it after ￼many days’ (Eccles. 11:1), and ‘Charity rescues from death”’ (Prov. 10:2).1
2. It is a positive commandment to give charity,2 as it says, “The life of your brother is with you” (Lev. 25:36). Anyone who sees a poor person requesting funds and purposely ignores this person and does not give him charity has transgressed, as it says, “You should not harden your heart, nor should you close your hand from your poor brother” (Deut. 15:7).
3. It is a general principle that a person does not become poor by giving charity. Nor does an evil or destructive thing occur through one’s giving charity. Also, if one has mercy on others, the One Above has mercy on him.
4. One is forbidden to tempt God, that is, to perform any action on the condition that God reveal His Presence. The single exception to this is the act of giving charity. The Torah promises that God will repay anyone who gives charity and a person is bidden to give in order to test God.
5. God is close to poverty-stricken people, as it says, “And the cry of the poor will He hear” (Job 34:28). Therefore, one has to be careful about the supplications of poor people.
6. Every person has the obligation to give charity according to his ability. Even a poor person who supports himself from charity may give charity from these funds. Though he can afford only a little, this should not prevent him from giving charity. A little charity from a poor man is considered as worthy as a great amount given by a rich person. As the Sages say, “When one offers a sacrifice, it does not ￼matter if the offering is an ox or a bird or flour, whether it is a large offering or a small offering, the main criterion is that the giver directs his heart to his Father in Heaven.”3 But if one has only enough for his sustenance, he has no obligation to give charity. A person has a priority of providing for himself before he provides for others.
7. The community should supply every need that a poor person lacks. The people of the city are obligated to supply him whatever he is lacking to maintain the level he was accustomed to before he became poor, and they should give it to him discreetly, so that few know he is receiving it.
8. If a poor person is collecting from door to door publicly, one should give him a small donation according to the poor man’s situation.
9. The community should provide each poor person with at least the equivalent of two meals a day and a place to sleep.
10. A person should give charity in the following manner: the first year of his going into business, he should donate at least ten percent of his capital. After that he should give ten percent of the profits earned from his capital after first deducting his expenses. This is the average way to give charity. Most respectable to give is twenty percent of the principle the first year, and in succeeding years twenty percent after annual profits. One who is not self-employed but earns his money on a salary basis should give the ten to twenty percent based on his net income after taxes.
11. One who wants to conduct himself in an honorable way should conquer his evil inclination and widen his hand. Anything that is done for the glory of God should be done gracefully. If he feeds a starving person, he should feed him with the finest foods that he can ￼offer. When he clothes someone who is threadbare, he should clothe him in the finest apparel he can offer.
12. Gifts given to one’s parents, who need to be supported through charity, are considered charity. Furthermore, they take precedence over others.
13. Charity to relatives takes precedence over charity to strangers. The poor living in one’s own house take precedence over the poor living in one’s city. The poor of one’s city take precedence over the poor of another city, as it says in the verse, “to your brother, to your poor and to your needy” (Deut. 15:11). However, one whose responsibility is the distribution of communal funds for charity (not just his own contributions alone), should be careful that he does not give more to his needy relatives than to other people.
14. If anyone gives charity to a poor person, and gives it with a sour countenance and a feeling of condescension, even if he gives gold pieces, he has lost all the merit of his actions. This person has transgressed the verse, “And your heart shall not grieve when you give to him” (Deut. 15:10). One must give with a sense of joy and a cheerful countenance, and he should console the poor person on his tribulations, cheering him with words of comfort.
15. It is forbidden to reject the requests of a poor person and turn him away empty-handed even if all one can afford at the time is a morsel of food. If there is really nothing in one’s hand to give, then one should say kind words to the person indicating that he sincerely wishes to give him something, but that it is not possible at this time. (And it is better not to give at all if all one has is a small coin and it is known for certain that giving a small coin will grieve or offend the poor person.)
16. It is forbidden to rebuke or to raise your voice to the poor, as their hearts are broken and humbled. Woe to one who disgraces a ￼poor person. Rather one should be like a parent to the poor, demonstrating mercy in deed and word.
17. If one should say, “I am obligating myself to give such-and-such amount to charity,” or, “I am giving this specific bill of currency to charity,” that person is obligated to give the money he has pledged immediately or as soon as possible. It is considered a transgression to delay if one has the ability to honor the obligation. If there are no poor people to whom to give the money, it should be set aside until a poor person is found.
18. If a person says, “I will give such an amount of money to this specific person,” he can wait until the person comes to him. He does not have to seek him out.
19. Anyone is permitted to set aside money for charity to distribute according to whatever manner and to whomever he sees fit.
19. One who convinces others to give charity earns greater reward than one who actually gives.
20. If one distributes money to the poor and the poor in turn insult him, he should not be concerned, as his merit is now far greater because of the humiliation he has borne.
21. The highest level of giving charity is to assist a person financially before he becomes poor, thus preventing him from becoming poor. Such assistance should be given graciously in the form of a gift or a loan or an offering of partnership in a financial venture or a job placement so that the poor person will not be forced to seek financial assistance from others.
22. One should attempt, if at all possible, to give charity secretly. The best way of giving charity is when the giver does not know to whom the money is going and the receiver does not know from whom it came.
23. One should not boast about one’s personal acts of charity; self-glorification causes the merit that has been attained to be lost. But if one donated any object for charity, he may inscribe his name on it so that it will serve as a memorial. Also, one may publicize his acts of charity if the public knowledge will inspire others to give.
24. A person should try to avoid becoming the recipient of charity. Even suffering a certain degree of hardship is preferable to becoming dependent on another person. It is, however, improper to subject others to hardship, such as one’s wife and child, because of an unwillingness to take charity.
25. Anyone who does not need charity, but through deceit obtains such funds will come to be dependent on other people. Conversely, one who truly needs charity to the extent that he cannot really live without such funds, such as an old person without an income, or a sick person, or one with a large family to support and daughters whose marriages he must pay for, if he refuses to accept charity out of pride, he is considered like one who spills blood and will be held responsible for his actions. All he will have to show for his suffering are sins. However, one who needs charity, but chooses to suffer deprivation, not because of pride, but because he does not want to become a public burden, will not die before he has risen to support other poor people.
26. It says in the Midrash Rabba,4 “A door which opens not for the poor will open for the physician.”
1 Avot of Rabbi Nathan
2 Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, Chapter 31:1-16￼
3 Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 110a￼4 Midrash Rabba, Song of Songs, Chapter 6, Section 17