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Specified priorities vs. individual discretion. Priorities. Traditional sources have mapped out detailed systems of priorities for recipients of tzedakah. These priority systems run along a variety of continua including (1) closeness to the giver (relatives ahead of non-relatives, etc.), (2) intensity and kind of need (priority to life-threatening needs, priority for those requiring food over those requiring clothing, etc.) (3) level of education (Torah scholars take precedence over non-scholars), (4) sex (women take precedence over men) and (5) lineage (cohen has precedence over levy who has precedence over a yisroel; an ordinary Jew takes precedence over a mamzer, etc.)(1). That makes for a complex overall system. How does an unrelated torah scholar needing clothing compare with an uneducated brother needing food? The complexity and great variety of possibilities has also lead to differing views among the authorities and there are many cases and combinations that are not even treated.
Individual discretion. Against the detailed priority structure is the concept of tovat hana’ah which states that the giver of charity has the right of disposition (within acceptable parameters). Domb(2) quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein(3) as saying that much of the system of detailed priorities applies only to communal tzedakah funds. An individual has more leeway to rely on the concept of tovat hana’ah in giving.
Because of Rav Moshe’s opinion and the complex and sometimes controversial ordering of priorities, we make no effort to produce a lengthy and detailed discussion of them. We refer the reader to the sources mentioned on the Guidelines: Introduction and Summary page and for particular practical questions to a competent rabbinic authority.
What counts as tzedakah? There are many ways to expend funds in the perfomance of mitzvot. Tzedakah is one of them. Sometimes it is not clear whether a particular expenditure qualifies as tzedakah or some other mitzvah. The practical significance of the distinction turns on whether a particular expenditure can be counted toward the mitzvah of giving a tenth (or a fifth) of one’s income to tzedakah (see Guidelines: How Much Should I Give?). Much of the following discussion centers on what spending counts as tzedakah.
Order of priorities Below is a general order of priority that may be useful in deciding how to allocate your tzedakah dollars.
In general funds should not all be given to a single level of priority. For example, the rich must give more to poor relatives than to the unrelated poor, but they are generally encouraged to withhold some tzedakah from relatives for distribution to unrelated poor(4). There are, however, exceptions to that rule(5).
Category 1: Captives, prisoners and matters of life and death
This is the highest priority and would justify piercing the restriction that no more than one-fifth of one’s income be given as tzedakah. (See Guidelines: How Much Should I Give?) Domb quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein as saying that even prisoners in countries like the U.S. and England qualify(6) to be considered in this category and are to be treated under the laws of redeeming captives. That implies that in our day, a very high priority use for tzedakah funds is protecting the rights of Jews threatened with jail time or actualy in jail. Blau(7) suggests that financial support in life and death (illness, starvation) situations fall in this category.
Category 2: Very close relatives
Individuals in this category are worthy recipients of tzedakah if they are poor.
One’s self and one’s own household. One is not required to give tzedakah until he can first sustain himself. However everyone must give a third of a shekel (less than $2) a year to tzedakah(8) (see Guidelines: How Much Should I Give?). A person may voluntarily give more than the minimum even if he does not have enough to support himself and family(9).
Parents. One is obligated to support his or her impoverished parents. However if he or she can afford to support poor parents out of other funds, it is considered quite wrong to use tzedakah funds for that purpose(10).
Grown children. Tzedakah funds may be used to support and fund the religious education of grown children who cannot support themselves even if the parent has funds available from other sources(11). Grown children are those old enough to earn a living. The traditional cut-off age is six, but that does not apply in our day and circumstances. Children are grown in our context when they reach the age at which people generally start to earn a living. If it is the custom in a family that children do not support themselves until they are married, then expenses for unmarried children living at home do not count as tzedakah(12).
Siblings. In the case of half-siblings, those from one’s father take precedence over those from one’s mother(14).
Category 3: Needy Torah scholars, support for dissemination of Torah learning, and other poor persons
Along with captives and prisoners, needy Torah scholars and other poor (including institutions that support them) are the primary recipients of tzedakah. As a general matter, support of Torah scholars and institutions that disseminate Torah learning are of a higher priority than support of the poor unless the poor are in imminent danger(15) or the poor are relatives(16). Some authorities say that all or a majority of tzedakah funds should be given to Torah Scholars(17) if one has no poor relatives. Here is the classic priority list for recipients based on proximity to the individual(18).
Relatives not mentioned in category 2 above
Residents of your city
Residents of Jerusalem
Residents of Israel outside Jerusalem
Residents of other cities
Category 4: Communal needs
Traditionally, communal needs such as maintaining synagogues and mikva’ot, payment of salaries of rabbis and other religious functionaries, synagogue dues, etc., are not considered appropriate uses of tzedakah funds. However some modern authorities allow it.
Contributions for communal needs are highly meritorious, especially if they are voluntary. Indeed there is a view that funds to support the necessities of a synagogue are of a higher priority than tzedakah for the poor(19). However, donations for communal activities should optimally not be paid out of funds designated as tzedakah(20). Having said that, some authoritiespermit tzedakah funds to be used for communal purposes(21). If one does use his or her tzedakah for communal needs, it is best to have the specific intention before tzedakah is set aside and before it is given for communal needs that contributions to communal needs will be made out of tzedakah funds(22).
Aliyot and other synagogue honors. If one wants to use tzedakah funds to pay for a synagogue honor like an aliyah, he must have the specific intention beforehand that his pledge will be paid out of tzedakah funds. In the case of an auction of honors, some authorities say that the winner of the auction may count as tzedakah only that amount by which his bid exceeds the next highest bid(23). There are authorities who hold that use of tzedakah to pay for these honors is legitimate only when the proceeds go to the poor but not for the general upkeep of the synagogue(24).
Category 5: The cost of mitzvot
For people of adequate means, the cost of buying the necessities for performing mitzvot like tefillin, etrogim, talitot, supporting one’s own minor children, etc. cannot be met out of tzedakah funds(25).
Low income individuals are permitted to finance the cost of s’forim (religious texts) out of their tzedakah funds provided the books are marked as having been bought with tzedakah money and are available for the general community use(26). That leniency, however, should only be exercised in extreme circumstances(27). Some authorities allow tzedakah to be used for appurtenances of mitzvot under certain circumstances when the purchaser cannot otherwise afford the items. However, one should not use his own tzedakah funds to purchase items like etrogim when they are provided by the community for general use(28).
Special Note: matanot l’evyonim and machtzit hashekel. Significantly, because giving gifts to the poor on Purim (matanot l’evyonim) and the contribution of a half shekel are required mitzvot, they do not qualify as tzedakah(29). However, the amount given in excess of the minimum requirement may be paid out of funds allocated for tzedakah(30).
It is forbidden to send any poor person away empty handed even if that means just giving a dried fig(32).
The Chofetz Chaim suggests that one-third of tzedakah funds be set aside to establish a revolving loan fund. That should be done every year until an adequate fund is developed at which time all future contributions should go to outright gifts(33).
Tzedakah funds may given to a non-poor person who cannot access his funds to buy food; the recipient does not need to repay when he regains access to cash, although that would be desirable(34). [This suggestion predates ATMs and MasterCard!]
Tzedakah funds may be used to pay for the Torah education of the children of a non-poor person who refuses to finance the Torah education of his own children(35).
One may use tzedakah money to pay for the wedding of a poor bride and the bris milah for the son of poor parents. That includes wedding expenses for one’s own children, if expenses cannot otherwise be afforded(36).
The cost of having poor dinner or house guests, payment for medical treatment and burial for the poor qualify as tzedakah(37).
The entire amount of funds given to yeshivot count as tzedakah even though some in attendance are not poor(38).
If in doubt about the legitimacy of someone requesting tzedakah, one should investigate those requesting clothing for possible fraud because the requester can wait. However, one should not investigate persons asking for food lest they be very hungry and in great distress. If one is certain the requester is a fraud he should not give anything(39).
To the extent payments for tuition for one’s own children’s Torah education go to a scholarship fund for needy students they may be counted as tzedakah(40).
Oppenheimer quotes the view that contributions to endowment funds (for which only the income, but not the principal, may be spent) do not count as tzedakah because tzedakah must be given away as soon as possible(41).
Who is poor? A poor person is one who does not have a sufficient steady income (including income from assets) to support himself and his family. The acceptable standard of living for such a person depends on the standard of living of those around him and what he us accustomed to(42).
A person should do everything possible to avoid the need for tzedakah(43). “Even an honored scholar who becomes poor should undertake manual labor rather than rely on other mortals for support…He should not say to the people ‘I am a great scholar, I am a cohen, support me'”(44). However, a person who is in finacial straits because of age, illness or excessive expenses (e.g., he has many daughters to marry off) is required to accept tzedakah. If he does not accept tzedakah, his misery only brings him sin(45). A poor person need not sell his house or furnishings to qualify for tzedakah money(46). However, he may be required to sell certain other assets(47).
As a general matter, one should not give all his/her tzedakah money to a single recipient. This suggestion, however, is subject to some controversy and exceptions. For a discussion, see Blau p.44.
As a general matter, if one is accustomed to give tzedakah to a particular poor person or institution, he should not change and give to another in its place(48). For this reason, it is suggested that one adopt a specific intention that gifts do not imply a commitment for future giving(49). One may switch to upgrade to a higher priority recipient (e.g., to a relative or Torah scholar)(50).
Disclaimer. The information on this page is an introduction to selected topics related to tzedakah. It is designed to help individuals understand the issues and formulate questions. It is not an authoritative guide for practical personal policies with regard to tzedakah. Specific questions should be posed to a competent authority.
Notes. See Guidelines: Introduction and Summary for full citations of the sources.
1. Aruch HaShulchan 251.10,11, Blau pp. 52ff. Return to text
2. p. 105 Return to text
3. Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 144 Return to text
4. Aruch HaShulchan 251.4 Return to text
5. Blau p. 47 Return to text
6. Domb page 25 (Hebrew section) Return to text
7. p. 47 Return to text
8. Aruch HaShulchan 251.3, 4 Return to text
9. Blau p. 7 Return to text
10. Ahavat Chesed chapter 19, Aruch HaShulchan 251.8, Albert p. 236, Blau p. 120, Oppenheimer p. 35 Return to text
11. Albert p. 249 Return to text
12. Blau p. 121, Domb p. 100 quoting Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 143 Return to text
13. Blau p. 46 Return to text
14. Aruch HaShulchan 251.1 Return to text
15. Blau p. 47, 52 Return to text
16. Ibid. p. 46 Return to text
17. Ahavat Chesed chapter 19 Return to text
18. Blau p. 50 Return to text
19. See discussion of this issue in Aruch Hashulchan 249.18 – 20 and Blau p. 47 Return to text
20. Aruch HaShulchan 249.18, Albert p. 242-246, Oppenheimer, p. 31 Return to text
21. See Auerbach in Domb p. 22 (Hebrew section) and Blau p. 125-126 Return to text
22. Auerbach in Domb, p. 22 (Hebrew section) Return to text
23. Blau p. 126, Oppenheimer p. 31 Return to text
24. Albert p. 244 Return to text
25. Aruch HaShulchan 249.10, Albet p. 242-246, Blau p. 118 Return to text
26. Domb. p. 109, Blau p. 125 Return to text
27. Aruch HaShulchan 249.10 Return to text
28. Auerbach in Domb p. 22 (Hebrew section), Blau p. 118-119 Return to text
29. Albert p. 254 Return to text
30. Oppenheimer p. 30, Blau p. 128 Return to text
31. Aruch HaShulchan 251.13 Return to text
32. Mishneh Torah 7:7, Blau p. 20, Albert 162 Return to text
33. Ahavat Chesed, chapter 18 Return to text
34. Mishneh Torah 9:15 Return to text
35. Oppenheimer p. 34, Domb, p. 93 Return to text
36. Blau p. 49 Return to text
37. Ibid. p. 122 Return to text
38. Ibid. p. 121 Return to text
39. Aruch HaShulchan 251.12 Return to text
40. Auerbach in Domb p. 22 (Hebrew section)Return to text
41. Oppenheimer p. 31 Return to text
42. Auerbach in Domb p. 23 (Hebrew section), see also Blau p. 28 for similar ideas Return to text
43. Mishneh Torah 10:18 Return to text
44. Ibid. Return to text
45. Aruch HaShulchan 255.1 and 2, Blau 26, 40 Return to text
46. Aruch HaShulchan 255.1 and 2 and Blau p. 30 Return to text
47. Blau p. 30-31 Return to text
48. Blau p. 45, Oppenheimer p. 43 Return to text
49. Oppenheimer p. 33 and 43 Return to text
50. Blau p. 45, Oppenheimer p. 43 Return to text
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