Passing up on a Job in favor of a Needy Person

Q. I can manage without working, but I am interested in a job to occupy myself and provide some added income. I began applying for a job, but I see that many applicants are much more needy. Should I pass?

A. You are certainly right that helping a needy person obtain a job is an ideal way of helping them. Maimonides writes:

The highest level [of charity], than which there is none higher, is one who strengthens the hand of his fellow Israelite and gives him a present, or a loan, or enters into a partnership with him or provides him with work in order to strengthen his hand so that he shouldn’t become dependent on [charity from] others. (1)

It is equally true that alongside giving something to a poor person, it is also praiseworthy to give them precedence in obtaining some benefit. The Talmud tells us, “A poor person who is seeking after a piece of bread and someone else comes along and takes it… [that person] is considered wicked.” (2) Rashi explains the “seeking after” as follows: either it is ownerless property that the poor person has invested effort in retrieving, or someone is giving it away and the poor person has invested effort in requesting it.

According to many commentators, this maxim refers specifically to a poor person or someone who for some other reason is especially needy or deserving. (Others say that this is only an example; the main point of the passage is to give precedence to any person who has invested effort in obtaining something that can be obtained elsewhere.) So there is an evident parallel between Rashi’s explanation of someone who is giving out bread and your case of someone who is “giving out jobs”

However, it is also worth pointing out some differences between the cases. First of all, the employer is not just giving out the jobs on a first come first serve basis; rather, he is interested in selecting the most qualified candidates. Second, in most cases you can not be certain that the person getting the job instead of you will in fact be a needy person who couldn’t obtain a job elsewhere. It is also worth pointing out that the other candidates don’t really have any precedence in the matter.

Certainly you are under no ethical obligation to drop your candidacy for this job merely because most other applicants seem much needier. Still, it does seem clear that under some circumstances this would be considered a thoughtful act on behalf of a poor person who would obtain a livelihood through your gesture. Before reaching a decision on this matter, consider carefully how likely it is that the person obtaining the job in your stead will be truly needy, and how likely it is that that person will truly be equally qualified.

Perhaps a better solution would be to take the job and use some or all of the money to hire a poor person for some task you would benefit from: perhaps you need some housework or yard work, or could give some business to a flagging business. In this case you get a double benefit: helping yourself by using your new income to advantage and helping the poor person whom you are hiring directly.

SOURCES: (1) Maimonides’ Code, Matanot Aniim 10:7. (2) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 59a