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What is the law when a poor person comes to my door?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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The Jewish community structure today is very different than in the past. Charity used to be centralized. Every community had a "gabbai tzedokoh" (charity collector) who would collect money (and sometimes food) -- by force if necessary -- from every member of the community, and would distribute it amongst the poor (see Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, ch. 9:1-3). Most of the laws of charity are therefore directed at the community. It is the responsibility of the community, not the individual, to ensure that every pauper receives what he or she requires. If an individual knows of a person who is in need, he must (do what he can to help, and) notify the community about the poor man's predicament (Code of Jewish Law (and Rama), Yoreh De'ah ch. 250:1).


We do, however, find laws of Tzedakah which relate to your question.
1. One who is asked by a poor man for charity and does not give anything, transgresses a negative commandment of the Torah (Deuteronomy 15:7) -- Maimonides Laws of Gifts to the Poor, ch. 7:2.


2. Someone who comes and says "feed me," is given food immediately and the validity of his claim is not investigated. If one requests clothing we investigate to see if he is an impostor - Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De'ah ch. 251:10. [Purim is the exception to the rule. On Purim "anyone who has his arm outstretched, we give to him" (Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chayim ch. 694:3)].


3. One is not obligated to give a beggar who is making the rounds, a large donation -- Code of Jewish Law (and Shach), Yoreh De'ah ch. 250:3.


4. One who wants to be meritorious should give for the sake of Heaven from his very best. If he builds a synagogue it should be nicer than his own home. If he feeds the hungry it should be from the best and sweetest of his foods. If he clothes the naked it should be from the nicest of his clothing -- Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De'ah ch. 248:8.


5. One must give tzedakah with a favorable countenance, with happiness and joy; and should commiserate with the poor person. If one gives tzedakah with a morbid face, he has forfeited his merit -- Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De'ah ch. 249:3.

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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Tzedakah
"Tzedakah," commonly translated as charity, literally means righteousness, or the right thing to do. Giving to those in need is one of the most important of G-d's commandments.
Maimonides
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Purim
A one-day holiday celebrated in late winter commemorating the miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from a decree of annihilation issued by Persian King Ahasuerus in the year 356 BCE.
Deuteronomy
The fifth of the Five Books of Moses. This book is a record of the monologue which Moses spoke to the Israelites in the five weeks prior to his passing.