Dependent Donee – Is it ever a mitzvah not to give charity?

Q. I feel that some charity seekers are in a cycle of dependence; they would be really better off if no one helped them. Is this a valid judgment?

A. The ancient rabbis did express concern for possible negative impact of charity giving, but they gave this concern a very low profile. They were always worried that this concern would be exaggerated and serve as an excuse to withhold charity from the truly needy.

The Torah commands us: “And when your brother becomes poor, and his hand fails with you, support him, though he may be a stranger or a sojourner, so that he may live with you” (Leviticus 25:35). The ancient rabbinical commentary, the Torah Kohanim, interprets this verse as follows:

‘When your brother becomes poor and his hand fails with you’ – don’t allow him to fall. This is like a burden on the back of a donkey; as long as it is in place, one person can hold it and steady it. But if it falls to the ground, five people can’t raise it up. And where do we learn that even if you have supported him four or five times, that you still have to go back and support him again? It is said, “and support him” [the word “and” is grammatically superfluous, thus implying repeated action]. Could it be even if this leads him into destructive habits? The Torah teaches, “With you”.

“Destructive habits” at the very least includes someone who would use the money in a self-destructive way, such as supporting an addiction or a vice. According to Rav Shimshon Hirsch, it also includes someone who is drawn into dependence on charity.

We find similar expressions in some other commentators. For example, the Torah commands us: “Don’t see your brother’s donkey or his ox collapse on the way and hide from them; surely lift it up with him” (Deuteronomy 22:4). Rashi explains that the expression “with him” means that you are only obligated to help if the donkey driver exerts himself; your aid is “with him,” not by yourself. If the driver sits idly and waits for you to do the job yourself, there is no requirement to help. The Kli Yakar commentary (on the parallel commandment in Exodus 23:5) infers by extension that we are commanded to help a poor person support himself, not support him if he sits idly and waits for others to do his job.

Yet we also find many sources which warn us not to be overly scrupulous about giving tzedaka. The Talmud goes to the extreme of saying, “Let us be grateful to the fakers, for otherwise we would sin every day.” (1) The punishment for failing to help a genuinely poor person is very great, yet people commonly fall short in this obligation. But at least we have a certain defense; we can always point out that some charity seekers are fakers, and that we didn’t give more so that we wouldn’t encourage the frauds. The message seems to be that we shouldn’t allow a few charlatans to discourage us from helping someone who seems truly needy.

A Midrash describes a householder who berates a beggar, “Look at his legs! Look at his belly!” In other words, see how he is able-bodied and well-fed, and not needy at all. The Midrash warns that God rebukes the householder: “Not only did you not give him anything, but that which I gave him, you begrudge him!” (2)

The overall message we obtain is as follows: It’s true that if we have a firm basis for believing that giving someone charity will work to his detriment, particularly by confirming him in self-destructive behavior, we should refrain from giving. But it is forbidden to adopt a general attitude of suspicion and skepticism towards the needy. We should recognize that giving charity is a special privilege that we attain only through the good offices of the poor, and display an appropriate demeanor of helpfulness and gratitude towards any person who provides reasonable evidence of being in need.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 68a. (2) Vayikra Rabba on Leviticus 25:35.