By Rabbi Dovid Markel
Giving charity is the hallmark of the Jewish people. In fact, Rambam, in his laws of charity (10:1), states that we are to be careful in charity more than any commandment:
“We are obligated to be careful with regard to the mitzvah of charity to a greater extent than all [other] positive commandments, because charity is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham, our patriarch, as (Bereishis 18:19) states: “I have known him, because he commands his children… to perform charity.”
In fact, it is through charity that the redemption will come as the verse (Yeshayahu 1:27) states: “Zion will be redeemed through judgment and those who return to her through charity.”
While we often think of charity as providing for an indigent who is lacking basic necessities, in truth the parameters of charity extend much further.
The commandment that one is to give charity is derived from the verses (Devarim 15:7-8):
“If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities, in your land the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.”
While the verse seems to be discussing a loan, the Talmud (Kesuvos 67b) understands it to mean that if the person is unwilling to accept charity, one should supply the individual with a loan.
Two interesting things, however, are learned from the words “supply him sufficient needs, which he is lacking,” which change our usual paradigm for charity.
Because of the words, “his sufficient needs,” the Talmud (ibid) understands that rather than there being an objective barometer for tzedaka, it instead has a subjective gauge, depending on the individual.
For a person who is accustomed to great wealth who falls on hard times, his needs are greater than a person who has a lower standard of living. For this reason the Talmud states that you must supply the individual with “a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him,” if that is the lifestyle is accustomed to.
Similarly, the Talmud (Kesuvos 66b) understands from the words, “which he is lacking,” that if all the person is lacking is a wife, this too is included in the commandment of charity.
So, while we should definitely supply basic needs to people lacking, we should realize that the definition of poor and wealthy is more of a mindset than the articles that we own.