Question: When a stranger approaches a congregant in shul asking for tzedakah, should the congregant verify that the person’s need is genuine? Furthermore, what constitutes tzedakah? Is a donation to a synagogue, yeshiva, or hospital considered tzedakah?
Summary of our response up to this point: We noted that one never becomes impoverished from giving charity. We also explained the importance of giving charity, especially via a loan so as not to embarrass one’s fellow. The Gemara (Kettubot 67b) discusses the lengths to which one must go to accommodate the needs of a poor person who formerly was wealthy.
We sought to determine who is classified as an impoverished person and thus entitled to charity funds. We also noted the dispute (Baba Batra 9a) between R. Huna and R. Judah regarding one who comes seeking food: according to the former we verify that he is indeed needy, but if he seeks clothing we need not make inquiries. The latter posits the opposite: if he wants clothing, we make inquiries, but if he seeks food, we ask no questions. The halacha follows R. Judah.
We delved into two differing sources (and views) regarding the economics of poverty (a mishnah in Pe’ah and a mishnah in Eruvin). The Aruch Hashulchan explains that the mishnah in Pe’ah refers to earlier times. We also cited Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss (Responsa Minchat Yitzchak) who discusses this matter in detail and cites the Chatam Sofer who connects the monetary measures set forth by our sages to leket, shikchah, and peah, which we no longer have. The Chatam Sofer connects our charitable giving to the recipients’ most basic needs.
We noted that there are some poor people who might not be entitled to our largesse, namely sinners. The Mechaber, however notes that there is a difference between one who transgresses due to an insatiable desire – mumar l’te’avon – and one who does so out of spite – mumar l’hash’chit. We are more lenient with regard to the former. We also touched upon the concept of tinok sh’nishba as it applies in our day and age. In sum, there are few today who can readily be considered as sinners out of spite.
We discussed to whom we should give our charity funds first; gabba’ei tzedakah; and the propriety of giving tzedakah funds to institutions like yeshivot and hospitals. We noted that a person should give charity relative to his means. We also discussed whether one may use one’s charity money for another mitzvah.
We then sought to define the annual amount of tzedakah one must give. The Mechaber, based on the Gemara (Bava Batra 9a), says the minimum is a third of a shekel. The Shach, in the 17th century, says it is one Polish zloty. Perhaps the requirement to give this minimum amount is why many shuls have the minhag of having the gabbai circulate the synagogue, collecting charity. In this manner, everyone is sure to at least give the minimum amount over the course of a year.
We also noted the importance of giving tzedakah in a good frame of mind and never turning anyone away empty handed. We also went through the eight levels of charitable giving and noted the importance of maintaining the right temperament when giving charity.
We cited from a related article by my uncle HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l. He was asked, “Until what age is a father to support his children and may he use his charitable donations for their support as well as paying for their Torah education?” He cited the Gemara to the effect that one must support them until age six; if he is wealthy, he must support them after that as well. The Rambam, based on the Gemara, notes that a father who refuses to support them should be shamed into doing so.