Question: I have three questions. First, what exactly constitutes charity? Second, how much does a person have to give? Third, can one consider a tip to a waiter at a restaurant charity considering how little waiters make?
Answer: The Torah (Deuteronomy 15:7-8) states, “If there shall be a destitute person (an evyon) among you, from among your brethren in any of your towns, in the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you, you shall not harden your heart or hold back your hand from your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand wide to him; you shall lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he lacks.”
The Talmud (Ketubbot 67b) notes that the object of the verb “lend” in this verse is someone who has no means but who does not wish to accept money from the poor funds. Concerning the conclusion of the pasuk – “sufficient for his need, whatever he lacks” – the Talmud relates that Hillel HaZaken purchased a horse and slave for a certain poor man who came from a wealthy family. On one occasion, Hillel couldn’t find a slave to run before him, so he himself ran before him for a distance of three mil.
Hillel did so because the poor man was an evyon who was accustomed to a better style of living, and not an ani, one who had always been poor. We thus see the importance our sages accorded to the mitzvah of charity.
How do we determine who an ani is? We can derive a definition from a mishnah in Mesechet Erubin (49b) that deals with the setting eruvei techumin that enable a person to walk an additional 2,000 amot on Shabbos. The mishnah discusses a person on a journey on the eve of the Sabbath setting a “Sabbath base” that would permit him to walk the distance to his home after dusk. It postulates that since “a poor man may make his eruv with his feet” – as opposed to the usually required bread – a traveler can use his feet too.
Rashi explains that a traveler is unable to obtain bread and should therefore be considered like a man who is poor and has no bread. Thus, we deduce that a poor person is one who has no food at the moment.
The importance of giving charity to the poor is illustrated by an incident related in Meseches Shabbos (156b). The Gemara states that “ein mazal l’Yisrael” (Israel is free from planetary influence) and then relates the following: Stargazers warned Rabbi Akiva that a snake would fatally bite his daughter on her wedding day. He, of course, was very worried.
When her wedding day arrived, his daughter took off a brooch she was wearing and stuck it into a wall. When she retrieved the brooch in the morning, a dead snake came trailing after it. She realized that her brooch had pierced the eye of a snake. Whereupon her father asked her, “What did you do to merit being saved in such a manner?”
She answered that the night before, while everyone was busy at the wedding feast, a poor man came to the door. No one was available to attend to him, so she gave him the wedding feast portion that had been given to her. Rabbi Akiva then went out and proclaimed that charity delivers from death.
We thus see how important charity is; it literally can alter a person’s destiny. We also see again that the definition of an ani is one who has no food.
To address your third question: A waiter in a restaurant is working for his livelihood, and in today’s society, gratuities should properly be considered part of one’s wages – especially since the I.R.S. now taxes these gratuities. One can hardly, therefore, escape giving a tip or claim that it is a charitable donation.