Beliefs Culture Ethics

Are Jews obligated to give money to panhandlers? (COMMENTARY)

A homeless person holding a sign.
A homeless person holding a sign.

Photo courtesy of Annette Shaff via Shutterstock

A homeless person holding a sign.

(RNS) While teaching an adult class regarding our obligation to preserve the “kavod” or dignity of panhandlers, a predictable question arose:

When I give money to someone on the street, how do I know they won’t use it for drugs or alcohol?

Other questions followed:

  • How many people do I need to give to?
  • How do I know if the person is really in need?
  • Does giving help solve the bigger problem of homelessness?

The frustration people feel around these questions is deep. We want to help, but is giving to people on the streets really protecting their dignity?

As the questions continued, one student spoke up quietly, but forcefully, and obviously from a place of personal experience: “Each time you give a dollar to someone on the street, you are giving that person a chance to make a choice to use it for something positive.”

The room fell silent. The freedom to make a choice is at the root of a person’s sense of dignity. Sometimes, it’s that simple.

The Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins Wednesday night (March 4), commemorates the biblical story of Queen Esther, who saved her people from a massacre plotted by the Persian vizier Haman.

One of the holiday’s religious requirements is to give directly to at least two poor people. The Jewish sage Maimonides instructed us not to be too discerning. “Anyone who puts out his hand to take should be given money.”

He added: “One who brings joy to the hearts of these disadvantaged individuals resembles God.”

It is legitimate to ask the questions my students were asking. After all, our resources are limited. And it is true that giving directly to people on the streets is not an effective long-term solution to a problem that must be addressed at its root.

And yet …

Sometimes we need to look directly into the eyes of someone whose hand is held out and, as the rules of Purim state, just give.

Beth Huppin is the Director of JFS’s Project Kavod/Dignity She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Photo courtesy of Lisi Wolf Photography

Beth Huppin is director of Jewish Family Service’s Project Kavod/Dignity. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Photo courtesy of Lisi Wolf Photography

Maimonides believed “there is no greater or more glorious joy than to bring happiness to the hearts of the poor, orphans, widows and strangers.”

Perhaps this joy comes from spending at least one day every year not getting weighed down by legitimate yet potentially paralyzing questions of judging others.

On Purim we can trust that we are giving another person an opportunity to make a positive choice with our gift.

What a joy!

YS/MG END HUPPIN

(Beth Huppin is director of Jewish Family Service’s Project Kavod/Dignity. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.)

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Beth Huppin

8 Comments

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  • Once again, the Indian names sound similar to the Hebrew names — IN ENGLISH. It’s well acknowledged that the Bible borrowed from pagan religions. You’re just finding names that sound similar and making an imagined connection. It doesn’t work that way. In contrast, there is plenty of academic and rabbinic support for the idea that the names Esther and Mordechai come from Babylonian or Persian names.

  • This is not rocket science.

    Direct aid is usually not a good idea. The best way to help is to try to refer the person to a local nonprofit which will provide a “hot,” a “cot,” and deeper help such as detox if the person wants it.

    But if one insists on direct help, the answer is almost never to give money, but to buy the person a sandwich or some other food. Ask them what they like and buy it for them.

    The chances are overwhelming that you are dealing with someone who has a substance abuse problem and you’re just feeding the problem if you give money.

    And people with substance abuse problems rarely eat well.

    The next time you see a panhandler and want to help directly, that’s what you should do.

    Don’t listen to people who say you should give money. Most of the time, that is asinine and counterproductive.

    If you really care about actually doing good, not just feeling good, you’ll take this advice.

  • There’s something really wrong with this kind of thinking.

    First, it’s literalistic in a childish way. The exhortation to give directly and unhesitatingly to those who ask does not mean to give zero thought to how best to fulfill that duty. One doesn’t have to give money. One can buy food…..

    And second, it smuggles in the contemporary phobia against being “judgmental.”

    At some point, you have to judge if you want to help. You have to figure out what’s best for the other person, given the likelihood that the person has a substance abuse problem.

    Otherwise, you’re really giving in order to make yourself feel good or to discharge a duty rather than because you really want to help the other person.

    In the end, it’s not about us — it’s about those we’re purporting to help.

  • From the headline, I was hoping for a halachic examination of the topic raised. My understanding of the short answer is: no, you are not obligated to give money to anyone who asks.

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