History of Anonymous Giving / History of Jewish philanthropy

Beyond Maimonides’ Ladder: Anonymous Charity in Early Jewish Tradition

Editors’ Note: Gregg Gardner adds more deep historical background to HistPhil’s forum on anonymous giving.

It is commonly held that Judaism holds anonymous giving as the highest form of charity – a characteristically Jewish form of philanthropy championed by the preeminent philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135–1204 CE). Yet the truth is more complicated: anonymous giving was directed to a particular subset of the population and co-existed with a tradition of public acknowledging prominent benefactors.

At the top of Maimonides’s famous “Eight Degrees of Charity” is helping a poor individual become self-sufficient – teach someone how to fish, so that he or she can avoid the shame of dependency on others. Anonymous charity, in which neither the giver nor the receiver knows the other’s identity, occupies the second rung on Maimonides’ ladder of giving. Nevertheless, perhaps due to the exceptional challenge it posed to human instincts to pursue a return for one’s actions (through recognition or other recompense), it is surely the best-known of Maimonides’s levels of giving and has become a hallmark of Jewish charity – and commonly considered Judaism’s contribution to broader thinking about philanthropy.

To be sure, while Maimonides is now closely associated with these guidelines on giving, he did not create these ideas from whole cloth. Rather, he drew upon earlier, less user-friendly sources in the rabbinic tradition – classical rabbinic literature, where discussions of charitable giving are scattered throughout tens of thousands of pages of texts written during the first seven centuries C.E. Written in a succinct ancient Hebrew and Aramaic shorthand, these texts collect teachings and debates on religious law (e.g. dietary laws, purity, marriage, inheritance) and biblical exegesis that remain authoritative and widely-studied to this day. In the sea of the Talmud and related classical rabbinic literature, float short, piecemeal discussions about care for the poor, including anonymous charity.

One of the most famous formulations of anonymous charity comes from the Gospel of Matthew, whose author surely was well-versed in first century Judaism. Matthew 6:3–4 uses vivid imagery that provides us with the paradigmatic statement of anonymous almsgiving: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret” (translation New Revised Standard Version). The reference to hands plays on a long tradition in biblical and post-biblical Judeo-Christian literature that incorporates “hands” into discussions of care for the poor – representing the hand of the giver or the waiting hand of the recipient (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:7–8). The imagery, of course, presupposes a face-to-face encounter between the two parties. It would only be later, in post-biblical traditions of the Hellenistic and Roman eras that we begin to see the development of the concept of anonymous giving – which may have been a reaction against Greco-Roman practices of ostentatious, public giving in exchange for social recognition and honor (often dubbed euergetism).

While the author of Matthew memorably promulgates and illustrates the principle of anonymous giving, the Gospel does not provide the mechanics. The Testament of Job, a lesser known Hellenistic-era text, suggests leaving the doors of one’s house open so that the poor can enter and take alms without being seen. A more developed and sophisticated mechanism for anonymous giving was developed by the classical rabbis, which I explore in my book, The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism. An intellectual elite, the rabbis were self-proclaimed “masters” or teachers of biblical law and exegesis, who began to emerge as a distinctive unit in Jewish society following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. In one of their earliest works, the rabbis teach: “There were two chambers in the Temple: One was the chamber of secrets and the other was the chamber of utensils (used for the Temple’s upkeep). The chamber of secrets: Those who feared sin put their contribution into it and the wellborn poor were maintained from it in secret” (Mishnah Sheqalim 5:6; c. 220 C.E.). A few decades later, the rabbis would further expand and develop this idea: “Just as there was a chamber of secrets in the Temple, so too there was such a chamber in every town, so that wellborn poor could be maintained from it in secret” (Tosefta Sheqalim 2:16, c. 250 C.E.).

These texts, written hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple, cannot reliably tell us much about a historical “chamber of secrets.” At the very least, the rabbis draw on and expand upon a received tradition about such a chamber and – in characteristic rabbinic fashion – reinterpret religious customs and institutions tied to the Jerusalem Temple for application to post-Temple Jewish society. In their vision of an idealized socio-religious world, the early rabbis relocate and democratize the “chamber of secrets” from the exclusive domain of the Jerusalem high priesthood into a civic institution that could be located in any town. Notably, the rabbis were primarily concerned with the wellborn poor – i.e. individuals who are conjuncturally poor, as they were well-off (or even wealthy) but fell into poverty due to a conjuncture or event, such as a drought or change in fortune. They are often seen as distinct from the structural poor – those born into poverty and unlikely to escape.

The chamber of secrets would become the model for the quppa; literally a “basket,” the quppa is envisioned as a communal charity fund overseen by a supervisor who collects contributions from all of a town’s residents and distributes them to the local needy. The quppa would become one of the staples of Jewish communal life for years to come, deemed by the Talmud and affirmed by Maimonides as one of the essential elements of any Jewish town (alongside a physician, kosher butcher, etc.).

As these passages help form the foundations of all subsequent Jewish approaches to institutionalized and anonymous giving, they are worth a closer look. First, they indicate that the ancient rabbis understood that conjunctural poverty carried a particularly acute sense of shame. The rabbis held that the extent of an individual’s economic decline was directly proportional to the shame incurred, so the wellborn poor who suffered the greatest fall were susceptible to the greatest amount of shame. Second, the rabbis understand that the dignity and honor of these individuals can be protected by giving alms “in secret,” whereby the benefactor and beneficiary do not meet. The wellborn poor can be elevated with assets – food, clothing, etc. – that restore them to their previous standing in society. By providing these assets anonymously, the rabbis prescribe a way to protect the impoverished from the added humiliation of face-to-face begging.

Anonymous charity would continue to be developed in later classical rabbinic texts. Texts from the fifth through seventh centuries prescribe that it is better to give nothing than to give publicly and shame the poor. One Talmudic passage hyperbolically claims that one who gives alms in secret is greater than Moses, while another page instructs that it is better to hurl oneself into a fiery furnace than shame a neighbor. Here, the Talmud also emphasizes the importance of the quppafor anonymous giving, suggesting that even the charity supervisor who oversees the quppaought to avoid face-to-face interaction with the poor. Another, hagiographic talmudic narrative illustrates this point with the example of Rabbi Abba, who plays the role of charity supervisor. Abba distributes alms by wrapping money in his clothing, which he trails over his shoulder when he visits the poor so that they can help themselves secretly. He peeps sideways, however, so that he could keep an eye out for those who claim to be poor, but are not. That is, Abba does his best to fulfill the supervisor’s responsibility to give only to the deserving poor, while still allowing the poor to collect alms in relative privacy and anonymity.

In short, the imperative to give anonymously in the Jewish tradition, which Maimonides promoted in his own writing, was a means to address issues related to shame and was particularly targeted at individuals who fell into poverty – as opposed to the permanent poor. Perhaps drawing on and democratizing earlier traditions tied to the Jerusalem Temple, the rabbis characteristically devise a mechanism for carrying out anonymous charity – namely through the development of communal organizations, which in the process institutionalized giving. To be sure, anonymous giving was born as, and continues to be, an ideal. Even in classical rabbinic thought, it coexists with other forms of giving that allow for recognition and rewards for benefactors. And the latter seems to have been prevalent in broader ancient Jewish society beyond the rabbinic class. It is worth noting that the sole remains of the earliest synagogue in Jerusalem (first century) is a stone plaque with an inscription of the name of the benefactor (Theodotus) and memorializing his generous benefaction. Further, archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of inscriptions, inlaid in colorful mosaic stones into the floors of ancient synagogues across the Galilee, that praise benefactors and their contributions. That is, Jewish giving has never been entirely defined by a commitment to anonymous giving; it was and continues to be characterized by the tension between anonymous and recognized giving.

-Gregg E. Gardner

Gregg E. Gardner is Associate Professor and the Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics, in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at The University of British Columbia. He has written extensively on wealth, poverty, and philanthropy, including his monograph The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

One thought on “Beyond Maimonides’ Ladder: Anonymous Charity in Early Jewish Tradition

  1. Another set of verses from the Gospel of Matthew complements the sophisticated and well-researched pieces setting out the cases both for and against anonymous giving:
    Matthew 5:14-16 ESV
    “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”


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