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A Thoughtful Giving Reading: Maimonides' Laws of Gifts to the Poor

For more information or to book a program, contact Erik Jorgensen

National Endowment for the Humanities



A Taste of Thoughtful Giving: Maimonides' Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor

The following text was drawn from the Mishne Torah, a seminal work of rabbinic scholarship by Moses ben Maimon, also called Maimonides (1135-1204). Widely considered the greatest Jewish philosopher and codifier of the Middle Ages, Maimonides was versed in theology, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.

This text has been used extensively in Thoughtful Giving and other civic reflection programs, and its eight sentences can easily spark hours of discussion over issues of obligation, anonymity, and community.

Written in 1180, the Mishne Torah ("The Torah Reviewed") sets forth a systematic presentation of the whole of the rabbinic tradition, a Talmudic codification of fourteen books. Among the subjects he addresses is that of Tzedakah, which can be imperfectly translated as lying somewhere between the concepts of "Charity" and "duty", from the root that means "righteousness" (a very different concept from the Latin root caritas).

In this brief list, Maimonides offers a succinct and extraordinarily provocative description of the eight degrees of charity, starting with an ideal and moving progressively further away with each step. This simple framework provides an illustration of a particular tradition of giving that continues in the Jewish Community to the present day.

  1. The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of a person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment — in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people's aid.

  2. A step below this stands the one who gives alms to the needy in such a manner that the giver knows not to whom he gives and the recipient knows not from whom it is that he takes.

  3. One step lower is that in which the giver knows to whom he gives but the poor person knows not from whom he receives.

  4. A step lower is that in which the poor person knows from whom he is taking but the giver knows not to whom he is giving.

  5. The next degree lower is that of him who, with his own hand, bestows a gift before the poor person asks.

  6. The next degree lower is that of him who gives only after the poor person asks.

  7. The next degree lower is that of him who gives less than is fitting but gives with a gracious mien.

  8. The next degree is that of him who gives morosely.

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