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Program Bank Lesson Plan: Maimonides' Ladder of Tzedakah

This three part program that uses Rambam’s ladder of tzedakah as a foundation for addressing issues in your community related to economic justice.

Set Induction:

  1. Based on the group’s familiarity with Rambam’s ladder, choose either list A or list B
  2. Create one set per small group or person: print each statement from the list on a separate strip of paper and put all 8 strips in an envelope
  3. Instruct participants to order the strips of paper in the envelope based on the ideal way (or example of how) to give

List A:

  • Help a person help himself or herself.

  • Give so that the giver doesn’t know to whom he or she gives and the receiver does not know from whom he or she receives.

  • Give, knowing who will receive, but the recipient does not know from whom he or she receives.

  • Give, not knowing who will receive, but the recipient knows from whom he or she receives.

  • Give before being asked; putting the money directly in the hand of the poor (thereby embarrassing him or her)

  • Give cheerfully after being asked

  • Give less than one should but with a smile

  • Give unwillingly

List B:

  • Upon encountering someone asking for money on the street, ask if you can buy them a sandwich at a nearby restaurant

  • Put a quarter into the tzedakah box at your synagogue

  • Loan money or supplies to someone through an organization such as kiva.org

  • Donate money to your rabbi’s discretionary fund

  • When harvesting your crops, leave the corners of the fields unharvested so that that those in need can come and glean what they need

  • Offer a pledge of a certain amount over the phone to a telemarketer

  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen

  • Lead a program or study about Rambam’s tzedakah ladder

After groups have between 7-10 minutes to complete the activity, use the following questions to prompt a brief discussion:

  • What factors contributed to where you placed each statement?

  • What stood out to you through this process?

Text Study:

Provide all participants with the text:

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:7

שמנה מעלות יש בצדקה זו למעלה מזו, מעלה גדולה שאין למעלה ממנה זה המחזיק ביד ישראל שמך ונותן לו מתנה או הלואה או עושה עמו שותפות או ממציא לו מלאכה כדי לחזק את ידו עד שלא יצטרך לבריות לשאול, ועל זה נאמר והחזקת בו גר ותושב וחי עמך כלומר החזק בו עד שלא יפול ויצטרך. פחות מזה הנותן צדקה לעניים ולא ידע למי נתן ולא ידע העני ממי לקח, שהרי זו מצוה לשמה, כגון לשכת חשאים שהיתה במקדש, שהיו הצדיקים נותנין בה בחשאי והעניים בני טובים מתפרנסין ממנה בחשאי, וקרוב לזה הנותן לתוך קופה של צדקה, ולא יתן אדם לתוך קופה של צדקה אלא אם כן יודע שהממונה נאמן וחכם ויודע להנהיג כשורה כר' חנניה בן תרדיון. פחות מזה שידע הנותן למי יתן ולא ידע העני ממי לקח, כגון גדולי החכמים שהיו הולכין בסתר ומשליכין המעות בפתחי העניים, וכזה ראוי לעשות ומעלה טובה היא אם אין הממונין בצדקה נוהגין כשורה. פחות מזה שידע העני ממי נטל ולא ידע הנותן, כגון גדולי החכמים שהיו צוררים המעות בסדיניהן ומפשילין לאחוריהן ובאין העניים ונוטלין כדי שלא יהיה להן בושה. פחות מזה שיתן לו בידו קודם שישאל. פחות מזה שיתן לו אחר שישאל. פחות מזה שיתן לו פחות מן הראוי בסבר פנים יפות. פחות מזה שיתן לו בעצב.

There are eight degrees of tzedakah, each higher than the next. The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid. With reference to such aid, it is said, “You shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you” (Leviticus 25:35), which means strengthen him in such a manner that his falling into want is prevented.

Below this is that of the person who gives tzedakah to poor people, but the giver doesn’t know to whom he is giving nor does the recipient know from whom he is receiving. This constitutes giving for its own sake. This is similar to the Secret Office that was in the Temple. There the righteous ones gave secretly and the poor people would be sustained from it anonymously. This is similar to giving to a tzedakah collection. But one should only give to a tzedakah collection if he knows that the overseer is trustworthy and wise and conducts himself fairly, like Rabbi Channaniah ben Tradyon.

Below this is a situation in which the giver knows to whom he is giving but the poor person does not know from whom he is receiving. This is like the great sages who used to walk in secret and put coins into the doors of poor people. It is worthy and truly good to do this if those who are responsible for collecting tzedakah are not trustworthy. Below this is a situation in which the poor person knows from whom he is receiving, but the giver does not know the recipient. This is like the great sages who used to bundle coins in their scarves and roll them up over their backs and poor people would come and collect without being embarrassed.

Below this is one who gives before being asked. Below this is one who gives after being asked.

Below this is one who gives less than what is appropriate but gives it happily.

Below this is one who gives unhappily.


Questions for Discussion:

  • What seem to be Rambam’s concerns in creating this ladder?

  • How does Rambam’s prioritization compare to your ordering?

  • Can you think of any other ways in which we might give that are not included here?

  • What conclusions can we draw from this text about tzedakah?


  • Use what you have learned so far to apply Rambam’s teaching to an issue currently facing your community
  • -dentify an issue (ex. hunger, homelessness, poverty)
  • Use the structure of Rambam’s ladder to create an action plan that works towards resolving the issue

Organizations that promote economic independence: