Q. Microsoft head Bill Gates was recently reported to have given $US 5 billion to one of his charitable foundations. In Judaism, what is the best way to give charity, who should it be given to and how much should be given?
A. The Jewish view is that 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, there are priorities when it comes to allocating charity funds: help should go to the most urgent cases, and your charity should start (but not finish) with your own community.
How should the funds be given? Preferably anonymously; the Temple had a lishkat chashaim, 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 famous 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, your spiritual reward is all the greater (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 247-259).
If I were Bill Gates, how much should I give? That’s not the question. The question is, even though I am not Bill Gates, should I not be giving more than I do?