Moses Maimonides is one of the most respected Jewish philosophers of all time. He was born way back in the 1100s of the Middle Ages, shortly after the Norman invasion of England, around the time that both windmills and purgatory were both invented.
Maimonides’ most famous work is the Mishneh Torah, and the most quoted portion of that is his “Laws of Gifts to Poor People.” In this section, Maimonides lists eight degrees of tzedakah, which is the word most often used for charity in Hebrew. Interestingly enough, the root word of tzedakah also means fairness, righteousness, and justice. You have to love the Hebrew langague and all it’s deeply wrought double-meanings which cross inform each thought. Every Hebrew word is a poem unto itself.
Maimonides wrote his 8 Levels for Jews. But I think it has some great wisdom for all people, and for Christians in particular. However, nowhere have I found anyone who has revised these for Christian use & teaching. So here goes:
There are eight degrees of giving (Tzedakah) for Christians:
1. The highest degree is to strengthen the hand of someone from your own faith who is poor, giving that person a gift or loan or becoming a partner or finding a job for that person, to strengthen the person’s hand, so that the person will not need to ask for assistance from others. This could be someone in your Church or your broader faith family. It could be a believing family member who is poor or a believing acquaintance in your community (2 Corinthians 8:14; Acts 4:34). This is the highest level because if we can’t take care “of our own” our faith is futile and our righteousness is in question.
2. A lesser degree, is one who gives Tzedakah to a poor person and is unaware of the recipient, who, in turn, is unaware of the giver. This is indeed a righteous act achieved for its own sake. Of a similar character is one who contributes to a fund which righteously works to aid the poor in one’s community. One should not contribute to a Tzedakah fund unless he or she knows that the person in charge of the collections is trustworthy and wise and knows how to manage the money properly. This is giving without having a personal investment in any return reward, even if it is just the good will and friendship of the poor. In this case, it is blind giving.
3. The [third], lesser, degree is when the giver knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the giver. The great ones used to go secretly and cast the money into the doorway of poor people. Something like this should be done, it being a noble virtue. (Proverbs 11:24-25) This is one way to give when you are having trouble finding trustworthy places to give. Some might simply stop giving, but it is better to anonymously throw your money at the door of a poor person than to not give at all, because some use skepticism of the leadership of giving organizations as a cover for not giving righteously.
4. The [fourth], still lower, degree is when the recipient knows the giver, but the giver does not know the recipient. The great ones used to tie money in sheets which they threw behind their backs, and poor people would come and get it without being embarrassed. We can creatively find ways to offer help to others where they can anonymously get aid without revealing themselves. Some who are poor feel ashamed of their poverty–and they need a path for aid. (2 Corinthians 9:10)
5. The [fifth], still lower degree is when the giver puts money into the hands of poor people without being solicited. In this way one gives without being asked–before being asked. The great philanthropists and humble who are gifted givers both seek out ways to give, rather than merely waiting for a request.
6. The [sixth], still lower degree is when he or she puts the money into the hands of a poor person after being solicited. When asked we righteously give. Sometimes we do not know the need till it is expressed, and once we know we give.
7. The [seventh], still lower degree is when he or she gives the poor person less than he or she should, but does so cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9: 7). When someone gives something, a portion of their income but not generously, or to help someone in need but without going as far as they could or should, it is this level of giving.
8. The [eighth], still lower degree is when he or she gives the poor person grudgingly/with a feeling of pain/unhappily. The attitude of the giver is measured as much and more as the amount given.
Perhaps we might, as Christians, look to Maimonides and see that our charity rarely rises above level 7–and such joy awaits us in giving at the higher levels that we have not yet experienced.[To find a PDF of the original Hebrew version and an english translation of Maimonides’ 8 Degres of Tzedakah, click here.]