I pass a homeless man every morning on my way to work. How obligated am I as a Jew to give him money? Friends have said that it is better to give to agencies and charities that help the homeless, but I always feel horrible when I pass him.
The Torah, no less than 36 times, instructs us to help “the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger”. The rationale presented is that since we were strangers in the land of Egypt during the time of our enslavement, we should be able not only to empathize with the needs of these classes of people but also to provide for them and their needs when called upon.
For someone rendered homeless – for whatever reason – it is our obligation to help. How we help is the issue. If we can, we are to provide the person with the means to help themselves, and to prevent them from becoming totally dependent on others. In that regard, the highest form of tzedakah for this kind of person is to train them for work and help them get a job.
In your situation, however, I would recommend that you provide some direct aid, especially if you live in a climate that will become cold all too soon. “Direct aid” can mean cash, but I further recommend that you offer some kind of store gift card or gift certificates to local fast food restaurants. In that way, the person has to use the certificates for food, and cannot use them for alcohol or illicit drugs, which is what some do. You can also give clothing and other resources that will help a person recognize inside the humanity that God gave to each of us.
You can also help direct a homeless person to local agencies that have shelters, transitional programs to help them get back on their feet, and other resources that will, indeed, be of help.
It is our obligation to help. How we help will matter, so do it carefully and thoughtfully.
Unfortunately, the situation that you describe is a common one which exposes our human limitations. There are two basic issues which this scenario raises: 1)How do we prioritize our limited material resources; and 2)How, or should we ascertain whether every person seeking money is truly needy?
While the Torah tells us to open our hands to the poor (D’varim/Deuteronomy 15:8), it does not specify how much of our own resources we must allocate for this purpose. From the language of the verse, we have a theoretical obligation to give to each person who asks us for help. The Talmud explains, however, and this is codified in The Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 249:1), that we must give a minimum of 10% and a maximum of 20% of our income for tzedakah (from the root tzedek-justice). Clearly, then, especially in a society where there are constant needs, it is impossible to give to everyone, though a great teacher of mine – Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg – once told me that in order to fulfill the plain meaning of the verse, he followed the beautiful custom in Jerusalem in his youth, which was to walk around with sugar cubes so that he could give something to every needy person who asked. Thus, one should prioritize, as tzedakah truly does begin at home and those closest to you should be taken care of before we look outward to different communities, countries etc. (Yoreh Deah 251:3). Notwithstanding that, each person has the right and choice to give to whom he chooses, so if you want to give something to this specific homeless man, you clearly may do so.
Unfortunately, we do know that there are frauds posing as poor people, and while this is hopefully a small percentage of seekers, this is a cause for concern. Strictly speaking, Jewish law mandates that if someone claims that he has no money for food, we provide for him without checking his claims (Yoreh Deah 251:10). Otherwise, one may ask for verification, something that a competent agency/charity hopefully does, thus providing a measure of confidence to donors that their donations are going to poor people.
Bottom line, the decision in your scenario is clearly yours. If, after considering the above factors, you choose not to give, you should not feel “horrible”. If you so choose, there are other things you can do besides giving him money. As Rambam (Maimonides) states, the highest form of tzedakah is helping someone find a job (Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:7). While I’m not sure if Hemingway studied Rambam, he sums up this idea in his famous dictum of “give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”. This can mean putting him in touch with an agency for the homeless, which can hopefully help this person get off the streets and gain independence. Most importantly, we must show kindness and empathy to the homeless and everyone in difficult straits, which ultimately might be of greater benefit than a random dollar bill.
According to traditional Jewish sources, if a stranger asks you for food, you must give him or her a loaf of bread and, if it is before Shabbat, three meals worth. If you know the person, you must give him or her whatever is in accordance with his or her honor (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:8). At the same time, Jewish communities for over a thousand years established a soup kitchen to give the poor food and a communal fund to provide clothing and other necessities.
Do such communal institutions absolve the individual from donating anything to a beggar? Frankly, Jewish law is not clear about that. Furthermore, Jewish law establishes some duties of the poor person – e.g., to try to get a job – and one never knows whether the beggar on the street has done so. Furthermore, one has a primary duty to sustain oneself and one’s family, and so for most of us there is a limit to how much we can contribute to others. Giving money to beggars is not a very thoughtful way to distribute whatever you can give to charity. Worse, the beggar may be trying to dupe you into thinking that s/he needs money when s/he does not, and the beggar – especially if strung out on drugs – may actually pose a threat to your safety. I discuss these conflicting factors and how the Jewish tradition deals with poverty generally in Chapter Six of my book, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics.
In the end, I personally give fully 99.9% of my charity money to established institutions of education, religion, and social service, including my synagogue, Federation, Jewish Family Service, the American Jewish University, Camp Ramah, Los Angeles Hebrew High School, the Masorti Foundation, etc. I also give money to interfaith and secular charitable institutions – e.g., United Way, Red Cross, FaithTrust Institute (to prevent violence against women and children), etc. – as well as some cultural ones (the symphony, the theater, etc.) – although, in keeping with Jewish law, I give much more to Jewish causes than to non-Jewish ones. Jewish law asks us to give in concentric circles – most to our own needs and to those of our family, next most to the needs of our local Jewish community, then to the needs of Jews in other communities, and next most to non-Jewish causes. (Again, see that chapter for references and more explanation.)
Do I give to a beggar who confronts me on the street? Usually yes, just because the human interaction involved in that encounter makes me feel terrible if I do not, but I always worry that I am adding to the beggar’s dependence on such handouts and thus harming more than helping him/her – and I never give very much that way.
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