I don't make a lot of money but I am able to live comfortably. I know the importance that Judaism places on tzedakah, but is there some specific standard that I should be trying to reach regarding what I give to charities?
You are correct in maintaining that Judaism requires a certain amount be given to tsedaka - charity. The normal amount is 10% of your assets given once in a lifetime followed by 10% of one's income after taxes (tax returns would therefore also require 10%). That is the minimum. A suggested maximum is 20%.
There are indeed specific standards for charitable giving according to Jewish law. The standards are not just limited to how much one gives but to whom one gives. Here is a brief summary.
The Torah specifically enjoins all Jews to be generous to those who are in need (Deuteronomy 16:7, 8). And since there was always someone worse off than himself or herself, even those considered poor had to give to those who were poorer (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 7b). It was left to the rabbis, however, to quantify what the Torah meant. Thus there was a rabbinic minimum of charitable giving by a living person (one-third of a shekel annually) and a rabbinic maximum (no more than one-fifth of one’s assets, Ketubot 50a). Anyone who gave away more would risk self-pauperization and make himself or herself a candidate for communal support. If charitable giving is designed to prevent people from becoming wards of the community, giving away too much would defeat that very purpose.
After death, people may bequeath to charity up to a third of the estate (She’iltot D’Rav Hai, Terumah, end), with the bulk of the estate going to family The average person was expected to donate one tenth of his or her annual income (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 249:1). Thus far, I have accounted for the rules of how much to give.
To whom to give is also a subject of Jewish law. Rabbi Joseph Karo (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 251:3) includes a hierarchy of giving, beginning with those closest to the donor (parents and then children and then other family members) and thereafter widening the circle of giving to include others (neighbours, fellow countrymen, and those abroad). Interestingly, providing for residents of Israel takes precedence over providing for those who live outside of Israel.
These standards, incidentally, are not enforceable. They are entirely voluntary but quite sensible.
Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.