Q. Do we really have to give 10% of our income to charity?
A. Wealth is a privilege given by God and an opportunity to do something for the community. The Torah says, “If there be among you a poor man, one of your brothers, in any of your gates… you shall not harden your heart or withdraw your hand from your poor brother” (Deut. 15:4-8).
The priorities are set out in the Sifre to this passage: “‘A poor person’ – the one most needy takes precedence. ‘In any of your gates’ – the poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city.” In other words, help should go to the most urgent cases; charity should start (but not finish) with your own community.
How should the funds be given? Preferably anonymously; the Temple had a lishkat chasha’im, a “chamber of the silent,” where someone in need could go quietly and take what they needed without donor or recipient being aware of each other’s identity. Maimonides, in his Eight Degrees of Charity (Hilchot Mat’not Aniyim 10:7-14), adds that even better than giving in time of need is to create the conditions for people to become self-reliant.
How much should be given? As much as you can afford, but not so much as to impoverish yourself and render you in turn dependent upon others. The best way is to give one-fifth; less than one-tenth is ungenerous. Whatever is given it should be willingly and cheerfully, and if you encourage others to give also, the spiritual reward is all the greater (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 247-259).
It is said in the Talmud, “Every charity and deed of kindness makes peace and intercedes between Israel and their Father in Heaven” (Bava Batra 10a). Charity also makes peace between the poor man and his Father in Heaven, because the poor man may be annoyed with God by reason of his lot.
Maimonides teaches in his Eight Rungs of Charity that the greatest tz’dakah is to see that a person never reaches the point of needing help.
Charity, from a root which means “love”, is a loving, respectful, tolerant attitude to every other human being. Charity is an approach, not just an action. And if you want God’s blessing, first you must be a blessing to God’s other creatures.