In the first Halakha of Chapter 10 of Hilkhos מתנות עניים (Gifts to the Poor), Rambam says:
חייבין אנו להזהר במצות צדקה יותר מכל מצות עשה, שהצדקה סימן לצדיק זרע אברהם אבינו שנאמר כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו לעשות צדקה…
We are obligated to be cautious (להזהר) in the commandment of Tzedaka more than any other positive commandment for Tzedaka is a sign for the righteous that [they are] are from the seed of Abraham our father.
This statement is quite amazing for several reasons; but before we explain the statement’s excellence, we will make three inquiries into the statement’s meaning.
(1) Since when is a Jew obligated to specifically execute actions that point to the fact that Avraham is his/her progenitor? We all know that it is a virtue to love and fear God and to do His commandments, but since when is exemplifying that we are Avraham’s descendants by doing certain actions also identified as an end in of itself?
(2) Why is Tzedaka the commandment that best exemplifies that we are Avraham’s descendants? We all know that Avraham epitomizes the characteristic of chesed (kindness), and Tzedaka is a high ranking form of chesed, but that does not explain why it would be chosen as the commandment that epitomizes our relationship to Avraham. Indeed, the Talmudic text that Rambam culled the statement from does not even use the word ‘Tzedaka,’ but rather גמולי חסד (Bestowing acts of kindness). Furthermore, we never even find Avraham giving out Tzedaka, at least not in its classic form, which is giving out charity to the poor. While he once tithed his spoils from war by giving ten percent over to Malkhitzedek, wouldn’t הכנסת אורחים (welcoming guests into your home) or קירוב (outreach) be greater examples of emulating our esteemed forefather? The Torah also goes out of its way to mention these cheseds; maybe we should choose הכנסת אורחים as the commandment which best exemplifies our relationship to Avraham for most Jews associate that commandment with him?
(3) If we’re supposed to be more careful in the commandment of Tzedaka than any other positive commandment, how come this halakha never plays any importance in evaluating halakhic issues? For example, we have a principle of תדיר ושאינו תדיר תדיר קודם (when two obligations come to hand, the matter that is done more often should be done first) and מעלין ואין מורידין (one must solely progress in holiness and never regress) in regards to evaluating the order of executing commandments, so shouldn’t this halakha be placed along side those two principles when evaluating the order of any positive commandments? Or, given the opportunity to do only one of two positive commandments, let us employ the former principle!
Let us start to answer these questions by inquiring into what the word ‘להזהר’ (Leheezaher) really means. At first glance, most would not think twice about asserting that they know what it is to be cautious, but let us not forget that the Mishneh Torah is a halakha book which teaches one not only how to act, but how to think. To be cautious is not only to act a certain way, but to think in very certain terms. So what is Rambam prescribing by including this caution in the Mishneh Torah? He easily could have relegated the loosely quoted Talmudic material to Aggadic material and not recorded it at all!
Let us look at the way individuals in the common vernacular use the term for clarification. Examples of ways one might advise you to be cautious is to warn you by saying: ‘Be careful near the edge of the cliff’ or ‘Be careful crossing the street.’ By this, the warner is not just telling you to look at your surroundings, but informing you it is not just good enough to look at the surroundings. One must also be aware of how s/he interacts with the environment and how the environment interacts with him/her. To be cautious is to possess a certain awareness. S/He should not view her/himself as a passive entity of the environment, but should be able to distinguish the line that separates her/him from his environment, and accordingly, play an active role in determining the best and safest route for her/him to travel upon. S/He must take into account all things that are impediments, detrimental or advantageous to her/his safe arrival and all things that could be potentially good or bad to her/his ultimate goal. ‘What if I slipped on the rock near the edge’ or ‘What if a car suddenly turned the corner, would I still be safe?’ All these questions must be dealt with to be cautious. So to be cautious is to be an active player in one’s environment such that s/he’s able to internalize and respond to any given situation.
Rambam uses the term ‘להזהר’ (Leheezaher) many times throughout the Mishneh Torah, but we need only to look at a few examples to prove this point. We will identify two kinds of caution that both have already been subsumed under our former definition.
(1) Hilkhos דעות (Characteristics) 4:17:
כשיצא אדם מן המרחץ ילבש בגדיו ויכסה ראשו בבית החיצון כדי שלא תשלוט בו רוח קרה, ואפילו בימות החמה צריך להזהר…
When a person leaves the bath house, he should put on his clothes and cover his head in the dressing room so that he does not catch a cold, and even in the winter, one should be careful about this…
In this example, we are given a classic example of caution because of the unlikely scenario. One should be cautious in this case because of the undefined future ramifications of the person’s wardrobe selections and the effects of weather on the immune system.
(2) Hilkhos Dei’ot 6:10
חייב אדם להזהר ביתומים ואלמנות מפני שנפשן שפלה למאד ורוחם נמוכה אע”פ שהן בעלי ממון אפילו אלמנתו של מלך ויתומיו מוזהרים אנו עליהן…
A person needs to be cautious in his dealings with orphans and widows because their exceedingly downcast and are downhearted even if they might be rich, or the widow and orphans of a king, we should all be careful in our dealings with them…
This example more closely parallels our case from Hilkhos מתנות עניים (Gifts to the Poor). First, because it obligates the person to act (both cases uses the term obligatory), but more so because it shows us how we are supposed to treat another. There are no formal rules about how to treat an orphan or a widow, but we are enjoined to be cautious or be aware of them and their downtrodden situation. We are commanded to take their situation into account whenever we deal with them. We are prescribed to be aware.
Accordingly, in our case we are not prescribed to act in any specific fashion; therefore, when dealing with a halachic issue, this rule should not be taken into account. What we are prescribed to do is to be aware of this issue.
Now let us turn to the relationship between Avraham אבינו (our Father) and Tzedaka in order to answer the first two questions. We will do this by trying to figure out the goal of Tzedaka; what is it? Some are inclined to mistranslate it as charity; but this is an impossibility, for in Hebrew we have the word ‘מתנה’ (gift), which in certain instances can be subsumed under a general title of Tzedaka (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 10:7), but more specifically refers to something you receive that you have not earned; this is charity. A better translation of our term would be ‘righteousness.’
The bare minimum action necessary to accomplish the commandment of Tzedaka is to give one-third of a shekel at least once a year (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 7:5), but at its highest level, one puts another in a situation where he need no longer rely on the support of others (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 10:7). When one finds a job for another (and to a lesser extent loans him/her money or goes into a partnership with him/her), you are not giving him/her anything; everything that s/he receives, s/he has coming to her/him based solely on the work and effort that s/he put forth. So we now know that it is not inherent within the meaning of ‘Tzedaka’ that a transfer of funds from one to another who has not earned it must take place.
But what is the root of Tzedaka? Why did God prescribe it? If anything it is destructive. By creating a communist or welfare state, we show people that they need not accomplish, they not set goals for themselves, their lives need not a purpose, for they can get by though the goodwill of others. But it is not our job to simply throw away money, for if a person claims that he is in need of clothing, we first check out his story to make sure that he is not swindling you out of a few bucks, and then provide him with the necessary clothes (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 7:6).
Let us turn to Avraham and why he is our forefather to understand what Tzedaka really is. Avraham was naturally a giver. Even when he spoke to God, he was willing to interrupt in order to take in guests. But what Avraham did not initially understand was that giving money to another in the name of מתנה (gift) is destructive: all it does is make the giver feel like a saint and it makes the receiver feel like a charity case. Given that giving was in Avraham’s nature it should not be surprising that most of Avraham’s tests involved hurting another or dealing with some pain inflicted on another. It was of the utmost importance for the sake of Avraham’s perfection for him to realize that giving to others for no greater purpose was useless, at best, and a low level of self gratification at worst.
It is within the very nature of Tzedaka that the meritoriousness of the action depends on the giver’s intentions. The Talmud says that when a non-Jew and a Jew both donate Tzedaka, they are not accomplishing identical acts. The Talmud asserts that when a non-Jew gives Tzedaka, he’s sinning, but when a Jew gives, he is acting righteously. Is this a double standard? Absolutely not! It is quite possible that when a non-Jew gives charity, s/he is acting righteously, but the Talmud questions her/his motives. Naturally it goes against human instinct, survival of the fittest and capitalism to arbitrarily give out to others who are not deserving of such benefit. Accordingly, the Talmud assumes that if a non-Jew is giving to another, without God first commanding her/him to do so, s/he must desire to give because s/he is getting something out of it; and s/he is, namely, undeserved self worth. S/He is boosting his own ego through the downtroddenness of another. This is how this despicable individual gives meaning to her/his life. By pointing out others failings and by supporting others, s/he merely attempts to reinforce her/his own greatness and superiority over others.
This explains why when Rambam enumerates the highest level of Tzedaka as an action which make another self-sufficient, he goes on to explain that the newly self-sufficient individual does not beg anymore (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 10:7). One would think that once one is self sufficient, a cessation in her/his begging would be the natural consequent in her/his new found freedom! What Rambam is explaining is that some people, even when they’re self sufficient, can’t see within themselves that they’re no longer a beggar; they need to also re-evaluate their situation such that they redefine their very existence; one must impart that they need not beg anymore, one must impart this new self definition, for until you do, they are now truly self-sufficient.
Now we could understand what it is that Tzedaka must accomplish in the giver and the recipient. When one gives Tzedaka to a poor person, he is not giving charity; he is offering that person another day: another day to put his own affairs in order and to get on the right track. When a person needs food or when a person is on your doorstep, the Torah commands us, unconditionally, to give to this type of destitute individual (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 7:6); they need the money just to get by or they wouldn’t be coming to you with such demeaning claims. But the second highest level of Tzedaka, after making a person self-sufficient, is to give in a way where the intended receiver is unaware that he is receiving (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 10:8). This is because Tzedaka is really a commandment that is between man and God, not between man and man. It is not our obligation to give in order to better our relationship with another; ideally there should be no relationship with the other person when the commandment of Tzedaka is being executed. Tzedaka exists in order that a person can see a reality outside her/himself. It is best if the giver is totally unaware of the recipient’s hand as well. The recipient is just the pawn in the Divine schemata to arrive at this abstruse point.
We can see this clearly within the actions of our forefather. By the tenth test, Avraham was worshiping God, not because of any benefit to himself, but because worshiping the Deity was truth; no one would deny that Avraham would have happily sacrificed his own life in order to spare the life of his beloved son, but that would be too easy. To live through the death of the son who God had promised would be one’s progenitor – that paradox is itself the test: Will one do more than is in his own nature to do? Giving up his own life would have been no test at all!
But if only after the tenth test was Avraham purged of any peripheral desires and ulterior motives, how did Avraham get started on the track towards truth? In the beginning of his section on the rules that deal with idolatry, Rambam offers a truncated version of the very beginnings of Avraham’s philosophies (הלכות עבודת כוכבים 1:3):
כיון שנגמל איתן זה התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן והתחיל לחשוב ביום ובלילה והיה תמיה היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד ולא יהיה לו מנהיג ומי יסבב אותו, כי אי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו, ולא היה לו מלמד ולא מודיע דבר אלא מושקע באור כשדים בין עובדי כוכבים הטפשים ואביו ואמו וכל העם עובדי כוכבים והוא עובד עמהם ולבו משוטט ומבין עד שהשיג דרך האמת והבין קו הצדק מתבונתו הנכונה, וידע שיש שם אלוה אחד והוא מנהיג הגלגל והוא ברא הכל ואין בכל הנמצא אלוה חוץ ממנו …
After this mighty man was weaned, he began to explore ideas even though he was but a child. He started to think day and night and wondered: how is it possible that the astronomical sphere to continually revolve without someone controlling it? Who is causing it to revolve? For it is impossible that it caused itself to revolve! He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him of anything [of these matters]. Rather, he was entrenched in [the city of] Ur Kasdim (in Iraq) among the foolish idolaters. His father, his mother, and all the people [around him] were idol worshippers, and he would worship with them. [However,] his heart would explore matters and he would gain a depth of understanding in which he apprehended truth and understood the path of righteousness through its accurate understanding. And he knew that there was one God who controlled the sphere, and He created everything, and there is no other god save Him in all of existence.
Avraham concluded God’s existence based on St. Thomas’ cosmological argument (the first way). Everything must have a cause; therefore, there is a Prime Mover of everything who “everyone understands to be God.” A regular person would probably not make such fantastic inferences about metaphysical reality, for most people are so self indulgent, so self absorbed, that the very fact that they recognize other people’s existence at all can truly be called a miracle, let alone such a remote Being as the Creator of the Universe. Avraham was a person, who not only was aware of a reality external to his own being, but cared about it enough that he felt justified in making life altering and life threatening decisions based on it, so much so that the Gemara (Makkos 24A) says “He who goes after Righteousness (Tzedakot), this refers to Avraham our father.” And this is the characteristic that we as Jews must strive to emulate: to realize that the world external to ourselves exists, matters, and can be relied upon to define our lives by.
Far from being a capricious or theoretical matter, this worldview has many practical ramifications. Here are a few: Rambam (Hilkhos מתנות עניים 7:13) says that there’s a hierarchy of distribution to the recipients of charity: first one must supply for his own relatives (also 10:16), then his household, then his city, and only then should he give Tzedaka to other cities. One is incumbent to first deal with his own surrounding social reality and pressures and only then with others. Two halakhot later (7:15), we learn that one must supply for the synagogue that he most frequents before others. The pressures and burdens of reality should be dealt with in a bottom-up way: deal with the smaller matters, in your own vicinity, that are most closely related to yourself, and then, after that is finished, go on to fix the rest of the world. The point can be seen in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:8): “He who increases Tzedaka, increases peace.”
This explains why Tzedaka was chosen as the commandment that best acts as a sign that we are from Avraham’s seed. One who gives Tzedaka recognizes that it does not make sense to give Tzedaka, that it would be best to keep your money in your pocket and save it for a rainy day, that your money should be spent however it best benefits yourself; but that does not matter from the Jewish perspective. The Talmud (Sotah 5A) relates how weighty the commandment of Tzedaka is when it states that “anyone who has relations with another fellow’s wife, even Tzedaka done in private will not absolve him from the rule of Hell.” Tzedaka is the commandment chosen that, at least potentially, could save one from the fires of Hell given one of the most heinous crimes! Tzedaka teaches us that matters external to out own scope of interests, worldviews and reality can and do have great significance in the world: let it be a homeless man, an orphan, a stray guest, a possible convert, or even God. One must be conscious of their existence and care enough to be in a situation where you could change their life and deal with the issues as they come up; this awareness is ‘Tzedaka’ and this is what epitomized Avraham’s life. He was a man solely concerned with matters external to his own ego and sense of self. This is why a poor person, who is supported by Tzedaka, must also give Tzedaka (Gittin 7A); it is incumbent upon all of use to be inculcated with this worldview, with Avraham’s worldview.
Possibly this explains Rambam’s statement in Hilkhos מתנות עניים 7:2 that when “one sees a poor person begging, if you turn your eyes and do not give him, then you’ve committed a sin.” Rambam could have omitted the earlier phrase and simply written that if you desist from providing for the indigent, then you are held culpable. It seems Rambam is informing us that the crime is to deny the existence of suffering that is directly in front of you. Rambam is not trying to exclude the case where one refrains from giving the beggar, for if you don’t have money on you, that could hardly be called a sin; in such a case, you must only do your best with the situation and appease the beggar in some fashion (10:5). But, to ignore the reality around you, and to close your eyes to the world, that is the sin mentioned in this halakha. Furthermore, Rambam says (10:3) that “anyone who turns his eyes from Tzedaka is called ‘Belial,’ just like one who worships idolatry is called ‘Belial.’” This is because the root of the two sins is identical: just like idolatry is self worship and the denial of the true external reality, so too one turns his eyes from Tzedaka is identified under the same title.
So it is not our job to exemplify that we are from the seed of the Tzadik Avraham; it is our job to epitomize the realization of the nature of his quest for truth. His quest is our quest. Unless one attempts her/his whole life to epitomize the trait that made Avraham chosen as our forefather, then s/he is wasting away her/his life with a barrel full of lies. S/He misplaces her/his allegiances, her/his own significance, and the impact that s/he could have on the world with self delusions of grandeur. Accordingly one who forces another to give Tzedaka is greater than he who gives himself (Hilkhos מתנות עניים ),10:6 for he is opening up the patron to a world and to a reality that until a couple of moments ago, was completely closed and unknown to him.
Now we could understand the subsequent line in the Rambam. He says that:
…ואין כסא ישראל מתכונן ודת האמת עומדת אלא בצדקה שנאמר בצדקה תכונני…
“…neither the throne of Israel is founded nor the true religion stands except on Tzedaka…”
for the Mitzvah of Tzedaka is the proof that Jews value things outside themselves, and only once you recognize the external world, the world of God, can one truly be called from the seed of Avraham.