There is no question that giving charity is considered one of the greatest commandments in the Torah. For example, on the Days of Awe we proclaim that “repentance, charity, and prayer will repeal the bad in the decree”. And our Sages declared that “charity saves from death” (Shabbat 156b). What unique message can we find in this important mitzvah?
The simple understanding of this mitzva is that it is meant to help the needy recipient. As the Torah tells us, “When there will be a poor person from among your brethren in one of your gates in your land which HaShem your G-d gives you, don’t harden your heart and don’t close your hand to your needy brother. Rather, open wide your hand” (Devarim 15:7-8). The mitzva begins when there is a poor person among us; it is then the giver’s role to help the recipient.
Yet Rabbi Akiva presents a completely opposite view of this mitzva. The Roman ruler Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: If your G-d loves the poor, why doesn’t he support them? Rabbi Akiva replied, so that we may be saved by them from the judgment of Gehinnom (Bava Batra 10a). In other words, the mitzva begins when there is a sinner among us; it is then the recipient’s role to help the giver, by providing him with a worthy object for this mitzva!
The idea that the mitzva of tzedaka is intended for the giver, and not only for the recipient, is expressed not only in aggada but is also clearly reflected in a number of halakhot.
Rambam provides one explicit example. The Mishna tells us, “All is according to the multitude of the act” (Avot 3:15). Rambam explains that there is special importance to the multitude of the act, rather than its magnitude. Therefore, he writes, it is preferable to give a small amount to tzedaka many times rather than give a large amount once. The reason is not for the benefit of the recipient, but rather for the benefit of the giver, since this practice cultivates the character trait of generosity (Commentary on the Mishnah).
Another example from Avot is the statement that “one who wants to give but that others shouldn’t give is stingy towards others” (Avot 5:13). The mishna indicates that this person is not stingy towards the poor, for he wants to give charity. Rather, he wants to prevent others from enjoying the benefit of giving.
One interesting example is Rav Moshe Feinstein’s understanding of the Edict of Usha, which prohibits giving more than twenty percent of income to charity, lest the giver himself be reduced to poverty. Rav Moshe differs from most authorities and writes that even a wealthy person shouldn’t exceed this amount, except for certain isolated causes (Igrot Moshe YD I 143).
His students have explained that according to Rav Moshe, this limit is not only for the benefit of the community, to prevent generous givers from becoming a burden. It is also for the givers themselves, to remind them that they too are not immune from misfortune. (See Maaser Kesafim pg. 36.) A remarkable halakha which conveys the idea of tzedaka as the need of the giver is that “Even a poor person who is himself supported by tzedaka, is obligated to give from what others give him” (SA YD 248:1). When we give charity to a poor person, we give him enough for his basic needs – food, clothing, shelter. But we also have to give him an additional amount so that he also can give tzedaka. This illustrates that giving tzedaka is a basic human need, like food and clothing, which the community is itself obligated to provide to the needy.
In Chasidic thought, this aspect of tzedaka is given a theological dimension. The impoverished material and spiritual state of the world exists in order to give the Holy One, blessed be He, the means through which He can display His incomparable benevolence. So giving charity achieves a unique level of following in G-d’s ways. (See Rav Aryeh Kaplan’s “Inner Space” pp. 10-13.)