views updated May 29 2018


ALMSGIVING may be defined as unilateral gifts to the poor or the religious. In its purest form, the gift of alms is given gratuitously without expectation of return, and is in this sense "free." Almsgiving thus stands apart from reciprocal gifts, which forge human relationships of solidarity by principles of give-and-take. Moreover, alms are praiseworthy when given voluntarily, out of the free will and generosity of the donor; yet almsgiving is often configured as a binding religious duty. Deliberation on almsgiving raises intriguing questions about whether purely gratuitous charity is possible, or whether it is always at bottom motivated by considerations of reciprocity, spiritual reward, or simply the fulfillment of obligations. Reflections on almsgiving have also stimulated considerations of the plight of the poor and how to best serve their needs.

A Free Gift?

For some, gifts should be given freely and disinterestedly by the donor, yet should simultaneously inspire reciprocation by the recipient. The Roman philosopher Seneca (4 bce65 ce) praised the graciousness of the unconditional gift, even while enjoining the recipient to respond with gratitude and, in turn, future service. This view of gift giving as a form of gracious exchange finds modern expression in studies of gift behavior inspired by Marcel Mauss's classic The Gift (1923). Noting that in many tribal societies, social cohesion is made possible through the back-and-forth flow of gifts, Mauss saw the gift as a circuit or loop entailing three obligations: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. Mauss and his followers were skeptical of the free gift because it appears to be free of social obligations; in not eliciting a return it interrupts the mutuality on which social solidarity rests, leaving asymmetry and imbalance.

Others have doubted whether a gift can truly be free of any expectation whatsoever. While it may not result in direct material recompense by the recipient, every gift returns some benefit to the giver, whether that benefit arrives in the form of enhanced social prestige, a position of dominance over the recipient, or merely a sense of self-congratulation.

Amid these interpretations of the gift, we find religious ideologies proposing that not only are free gifts possible, they are highly commendable. Alms are aimed in two directions: to the poor and dispossessed and to religious professionals living in voluntary poverty, such as priests, monastics, renouncers, or the institutions that support them. Such beneficiaries are little expected to make a direct return on the gifts offered. The resulting asymmetry is part of what make such gifts laudable: they appear to be made without calculation or anticipation of return.

Yet, the absence of direct reciprocity from the recipient may not always entail that the giver be entirely free of interest. Almsgiving may bear the imprint of an older sacrificial order that in many traditions it supplanted: explicit bartering with the gods is replaced by more implicit arrangements. Almsgiving gratifies the cosmic order, which in turn grants further bounty. A donor might legitimately engage in almsgiving as a form of merit-making, with an eye fixed on future meritorious rewards bestowed, for example, through the causality of karma in the religions originating in South Asia, or in the form of God's blessings in the Western monotheisms. Almsgiving may thus be regarded as a spiritual investment wherein sacrifices and good deeds in this life are amply rewarded in the hereafter. Almsgiving may also be motivated by a desire for atonement; here the gift may balance the karmic "bank account" by offsetting bad deeds, or offer reparations and expiation for sins committed.

At the same time, within religious traditions there occurs frequent discussion on whether such calculations are appropriate. For some, almsgiving is a purely magnanimous act, a complete and genuine expression of compassion for the poor, esteem for the religious, contempt for worldly goods, or devotion and gratitude to God. Many South Asian theorists posit almsgiving (dāna ) as a gesture toward the recipient in which either esteem or compassionrather than interest in meritprevails. Simultaneously, dāna is an act of renunciation, of loosening one's attachments to material possessions. Hindu discourses on dāna, for example, rate gifts made to worthy brahmans out of a sense either of rightness (dharmadāna ) or relinquishment (tyāgadāna ), as estimable above all gifts. Certain Theravāda Buddhist texts assert that the ideal generous intention is entirely suffused with esteem toward the monastic community or compassion toward the needy. Mahāyāna Buddhism, which Jacques Gernet has described as by its nature "antieconomic" and "avid for the incommensurable" (1995, p. 241), regards lavish unilateral and disinterested generosity as a supreme moral and religious achievement.

In the Western religionsJudaism, Christianity, and Islamalmsgiving is a declaration of devotion and gratitude to God. It thus expresses intentions of the highest order, aimed not so much toward the earthly recipient as the divine one. The Christian Gospels make such sentiment explicit when Jesus declares that "what is done for the least of my brethren, that is done unto me" (Mt. 25:40). Judaism and Islam too find God present in the recipient; a Talmudic passage states that one who gives to the poor receives "the face of the Presence of God" (Avery-Peck, 1999, p. 54), and the Islamic scholar al-Ghazālī's eleventh-century On the Mysteries of Almsgiving asserts that the poor recipient "has made his hand a substitute for that of God" (Faris, 1966, p. 36). Moreover, for all these traditions, since God has given all that one possesses, almsgiving is merely furthering God's work of distributing the bountiful creation. It purifies the donor of stinginess and gives lie to the pretension of human autonomy. Almsgiving is not a matter of self-aggrandizement, but rather of humility and purification.

One of the most poignant ruptures in theologies of calculated giving occurred within Christianity through the Protestant Reformation. In The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (2000), Natalie Zemon Davis suggests that in a "profound sense, the religious reformations of the sixteenth century were a quarrel about gifts" (p. 100). Reformers were offended by the Mass as a sacrifice and source of grace, priests trafficking in indulgences, and gifts edging, in their view, toward heretical reciprocity with God. For reformer John Calvin (15091564), since God gives utterly gratuitously, grace cannot be won by pious acts. All gifts can only be free and unidirectional, flowing "downward from the Lord and outward from us" (Davis, 2000, p. 118).

A Voluntary Obligation?

Covenantal theologies depict almsgiving as a binding human obligation to God. In the Torah, God commands the Israelites to "open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land" (Dt. 15:11). The practice of zakāt, prescribed as one of the five pillars of Islam, makes almsgiving obligatory for every Muslim; in some Muslim countries it is enforced as a legal obligation. In addition to legal sanctions, severe public opprobrium may attach itself to those who resist almsgiving, enforcing charity by the mandate of social pressure.

Ritual obligations also call forth gifts. Entry into ritual spaces often entails passing through the gates of charity. The ritual calendars in many of the world's religious traditions build ritual almsgiving into festival occasions; the hungry know a meal may always be had during Lent and Easter, the Jewish holiday of Purim, the Buddhist celebration of Vesak, and the Muslim Īd al-Aā. They might also gather at sacred sites where pilgrims are compelled to be free with alms: supplicants await at the banks of the Ganges in Vārāasī to offer themselves as auspicious occasions for pilgrims' devotion. Institutionalized ritual practices, such as the passing of the collection plate during the weekly service, ingrain routine patterns of giving.

Where conceived as an obligation compelled by external demands, the element of voluntarism may be obscured. Only in granting the deed an element of free will can it exhibit the appropriate spirit of generosity. Paradoxically, it may be that gifts can be simultaneously obliged and voluntary. Religious discourses on almsgiving often detect nuances in intention that are explored in rankings of gifts. The twelfth-century Jewish theologian Maimonides' eight degrees of charity capture many of the subtleties of almsgiving that allow for gracious intentions within the context of carrying out duties. At the highest level, the donor strengthens the poor Jew, putting him beyond a condition of dependence; next best is the anonymous gift where neither the donor nor the recipient knows the other; after this comes the gift where the donor knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know who the donor is; then, the gift where the recipient knows the donor, but the donor does not know the recipient; then the gift of one who gives before being asked; then the gift of one who has been asked; then the gift of less than is fitting, but given gladly; and lastly, the gift given morosely.

An intriguing counterpart to Maimonides' eight degrees and another list that detects nuances in the donor's intentionality may be found the eight duties of almsgiving outlined by al-Ghazālī, which explore the mysteries of both zakāt and voluntary giving (adaqah ). These duties include understanding why zakāt is obligatory, respecting the time and etiquette of paying zakāt, giving in secrecy, giving in public (in order to provide an example for others), refraining from taunting or reproaching the beneficiary, belittling the gift (in order to guard against self-congratulation and vanity), giving what is best and dear to the donor, and seeking out particularly worthy recipients (within the prescribed categories of recipients of zakāt ). Here too we find sensitivities that ennoble the fulfillment of duty.

It is noteworthy that both Maimonides and al-Ghazālī recognize anonymous giving, especially when we notice covert giving in other traditions, such as the secret gift (gupta-dāna ) admired in South Asian traditions, and Matthew's instruction that in giving "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret" (Mt. 6:3). The secret gift spares the recipient disgrace and arrests the donor's vanity. Yet even while hidden, this most meritorious gift does not go unseen or unrewarded by God, nor by the workings of karma.

Crucial considerations in grasping the voluntary nature of almsgiving concern socioeconomic realities and the possibility that unilateral giving, especially in class-stratified societies, may be an imperative placed on the rich by the social pressure of the poor. Acts of charity maintain the status quo by legitimizing the wealth of the haves while softening (but seldom fundamentally altering) the lot of the have-nots (see Bowie, 1998). Jean Starobinski (1994) has suggested that both largesse and charity may always contain an element of darkness in that they expose inequalities without eradicating them. Religious ideologies celebrating charity may be merely giving a religious and moral gloss to what is in fact driven by forces of class appeasement.

Where Do Alms Go?

Alms are received in different ways by strangers, neighbors, monks, nuns, holy men and women, the displaced, and the poor. Alms may engender affection and gratitude or they might give rise to humiliation and resentment. Some recent fieldwork studies in India have revealed considerable ambivalence for those on the receiving end of certain types of gifts that bring "poison" and dependency with them (Raheja, 1988; Parry, 1994). In some contexts, recipients may resent the paternalism of those who seek the recipients' moral betterment through charity. Conversely, the poor may distrust the gift that traps them in dependency and degradation, given by those who accept the condition of poverty as part of the created order or as a necessary backdrop for the expression of their good deeds.

Also important is to consider the trajectory of alms that enrich institutions and transform societies. For example, almsgiving practices associated with the arrival of Buddhism in China stimulated the development of an advanced economy through the accumulation of great wealth by monastic institutions. Monastic riches were not hoarded, but were in turn transformed into productive capital that was then redistributed to the poor or deployed for the purposes of conversion and propagation, magnifying Buddhism's reach. Through investing in what came to be called the "Inexhaustible Treasuries"inexhaustible in that they increase wealth and in turn dispense it in every directionthe pious donor could become a bodhisattva perfecting infinite generosity (see Gernet, 1995). No political, social, or economic institution in Tang dynasty China remained unaffected by these developments.

Gifts in the modern world too have the potential to transform or constrain the lives of individuals as well as effect great historical change. In modern contexts of tremendous global economic disparities, almsgiving may play a crucial role in rectifying the gross injustices and exploitations of the world. Yet the free, unilateral gift does not arrive without complications. Even when given with the noblest of intentions, alms take different courses as they reach the recipient, sometimes leading to help and self-determination, other times to a labyrinth of dependence. A central question from a modern perspective concerns how best to channel human charitable impulses not merely to offer relief, but to effectively dismantle social and economic structures that create oppression and poverty in the first place.

See Also

Charity; Hospitality; Merit, overview article; Zakāt.


Seneca's De Beneficiis, translated by John Cooper and J. F. Procopé in Moral and Political Essays (New York, 1995), offers a nuanced appreciation of the intricacies of the gift. For Maimonides' eight degrees of charity, see Isadore Twersky, ed., A Maimonides Reader (New York, 1972), pp. 134139; for al-Ghazālī's book on almsgiving in the Iyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, see Nabih Amin Faris, trans., The Mysteries of Almsgiving (Beirut, 1966). A thorough overview of Jewish almsgiving can be found in Alan Avery-Peck's entry "Charity in Judaism" in The Encyclopedia of Judaism (New York, 1999), vol. 1, pp. 5063. See P. V. Kane's chapter on dāna for Hindu textual reflections on the gift in History of Dharmashastra (Poona, India, 1975), pp. 837888; and Ethics, Wealth, and Salvation: A Study in Buddhist Social Ethics, edited by Russell Sizemore and Donald Swearer (Columbia, S.C., 1990), for several chapters on Buddhist dāna. Superb historical explorations of almsgiving include Natalie Zemon Davis's The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (Madison, Wis., 2000); Jean Starobinski's Largesse (Paris, 1994), translated by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago, 1997); and Jacques Gernet's Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth Centuries, translated by Franciscus Verellen (New York, 1995). Social sciences approaches stimulated by Mauss's The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, translated by W. D. Halls (London and New York, 1990), and particularly fascinating when explored in contemporary South Asia include Gloria Raheja's The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village (Chicago, 1988) and Jonathan Parry's Death in Banaras (Cambridge, U.K., 1994). For a clear-eyed study of the social and economic pressures bearing on almsgiving in rural Buddhist Thailand, see Kathleen Bowie's "The Alchemy of Charity: Of Class and Buddhism in Northern Thailand," American Anthropologist 100, no. 2 (1998): 469481. Finally, for a useful anthology with both secular and religious writings on charity and philanthropy, see Amy Kass, ed., The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose (Bloomington, Ind., 2002).

Maria Heim (2005)


views updated Jun 27 2018


CHARITY . The word charity derives from the Latin caritas and can be traced to the Greek charis. In the Western religious tradition, charity has become synonymous with the Greek terms agape, philanthopia, eleemosune (or eleos ), and even philia and eros ; with the Hebrew words zedakah, gemilut hesed, and aheb ; and with the Latin amor, amicitia, beneficia, and caritas (or carus ). Thus, as a theoretical conception, charity has meant both possessive and selfless love, as well as favor, grace, mercy, kindness, righteousness, and liberality. In its practical application charity denotes the distribution of goods to the poor and the establishment and endowment of such social-welfare institutions as hospitals, homes for the aged, orphanages, and reformatory institutions.

Documents of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt indicate that charity in the sense of social justice was considered a divinely decreed principle. The reforms of King Urukagina (c. 2400 bce) were praised because "he freed the inhabitants of Lagash from usuryhunger. The widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful." But ideals of charity and social justice and the principle of social consciousness developed not only because the divinity had so ordained but also because social circumstances, human oppression, and suffering demanded them. The goddess Nanshe and later the god Utu (or Shamash), the orphan's mother and father, were the guarantors of justice, cared for the widow, sought out justice for the poorest, and brought refugees shelter. King Hammurabi (d. circa 1750 bce) sought through legislation to eliminate the social inequity that had been created by the malpractices of businessmen or other members of the enterprising Babylonian society. In ancient Egypt charity was perceived as an inner disposition toward fellow human beings and as a way to propitiate the gods for the purpose of achieving immortality, but it also meant, as The Book of Going Forth by Day indicates, "giving bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked and even a boat to the one who had none."

There is little doubt that early Hebrew thought was greatly influenced by the Babylonian, Egyptian, and other peoples of the ancient Near East. But the Hebrews molded what they inherited and added their own religious and social thought as set forth in their scriptures, particularly the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew root aheb refers primarily to love between man and woman, but in its theological use it denotes God's love for humankind, humankind's love for God, and love among human beings. God's love for humankind is caused by its need but also by God's innate qualities (Deut. 10:1718; Ps. 145:1516). A person's love for God is a response to God's love, a gratitude that is also expressed through one's love for other people.

As an applied virtue, charity is expected of everyone, for whoever gives charity will be blessed by the Lord (Deut. 15:710). In medieval Judaism, almsgiving to the needy poor was considered essential. For Moses Maimonides the highest form of charity was to help the poor Israelites rehabilitate themselves by lending them money, taking them into partnership, or employing them, for in this way the desired end is achieved without any loss of self-respect for the recipient. Lending money "to the poor man so as to alleviate his poverty and afford him generous support" was considered an obligatory mode of charity. Notwithstanding occasional references to liberality toward the Gentiles, as we find in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 61a), in Jewish tradition "charity begins at home," and for many centuries the object of charity was the fellow Jew. Almsgiving was advocated by the Torah, but it was directed toward fellow Jews, "the descendants of the seed of Abrahamof pure Israelite descent." "Hard-heartedness is only found among the gentiles," as it is said that "they are cruel and have no compassion," in the words of Maimonides, who cites several passages from the Hebrew Bible in support of his views, such as Deuteronomy 15:3, Deuteronomy 15:11, Deuteronomy 14:1, and Jeremiah 6:23. The behavior of the Israelite toward the Gentile is different because Israelites are "the children of the Lord." Thus, Israelites must be generous to fellow Israelites.

In ancient Greek society charity was synonymous with love (agape ), philanthropia, eleos, and philoxenia, and it was manifested through benevolent deeds on behalf of those in need. In a variety of forms charity is present in the earliest Greek poetry, drama, and philosophy. Compassion for the afflicted and loving hospitality were greatly emphasized in Mycenaean and archaic Greek society (1400700 bce). The care of strangers and suppliants was an ethical imperative because such people had been placed under the direct aegis of the divinity. Zeus became known as Xenios, "protector of strangers." This imperative is expressed in Homer's Odyssey : "Receive strangers regardless of who they may be; that man is sacred who welcomes a wayfaring stranger."

It was believed that when a poor person was expelled form the table of the rich or even rudely handled, the vengeance of the "gods and Furies would be visited upon the heartless miscreant," for "gods and Furies exist for beggars." To be merciful and to act out of love were common ethical admonitions. Hesiod (c. 700 bce) was even more pronounced in his concern for the poor, though he lauded hard work and stressed moderation in the practice of charity while advocating philanthropy, righteous deeds, and reverence for the stranger and the poor. Hesiod writes that in offering hospitality one should "be neither too lavish nor too parsimonious" and that one should not "taunt anyone for his poverty which eats out the hearteven cursed poverty is sent by the immortal gods."

The most important characteristic of Greek thought as early as the Homeric age is ethical in nature. In the classical Greek city-states, whether in Athens, Thebes, or remote Acragas, charity in the sense of selfless love, almsgiving, pity, and concern for the orphan, the widow, and the elderly was widely and generously practiced. The Greek charis originally denoted a gift of favor inspired by the Charites (the three Graces), goddesses who personified not only physical attributes such as charm, grace, and beauty but also kindness, goodwill, and gratitude.

Under the influence of the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and of the Stoics, charity was perceived as a duty toward all "broken and destitute humanity wherever found." It was a normal and religious obligation, a social and economic need. The pre-Socratic philosophers had held that justice and equality were principles of divine origin. Pythagoras, in particular, emphasized equality and harmony in social relationships. "All human laws are nourished by one, which is divine," adds Heraclitus. There are no political or economic laws, only moral laws.

For the great thinkers of the fifth and the fourth centuries bce, doing good for the sake of goodness was the only moral ground for charity. A cardinal principle of Greek religion and social thought was that the divinity is good and the cause of good. Plato writes that for "the cause of evil we must look in other things and not in God" (Republic 2.18). Neither God nor man can be really good without in some way communicating his goodness to others. Aristotle adds, "If all men vied with each other in moral nobility and strove to perform the noblest deeds, the common welfare would be fully realized, while individuals also could enjoy the greatest of goods, inasmuch as a virtue is the greatest good" (Nicomachean Ethics 9.8.7). Thus, "the conferring of a benefit where a return is not sought is morally acceptable, and the value of the gift is not to be judged by its intrinsic worth but by the spirit of one giver." Aristotle insisted on the idea of "the cheerful giver." Being good meant doing good.

Poverty should not be tolerated, for, according to Aristotle, it leads to the erosion of a democratic state and constitutes the basis of social revolts (Politics 6.3.4). Professional beggars were banned by Homeric society and Solon's and Plato's Athens as well as by Sparta. Nevertheless, poverty was accepted as a fact of life, and charity a means for its relief. The Greeks invoked curses upon men "who failed to provide water for the thirsty, fire for anyone in need of it, burial, [hospitality, or] directions for a lost stranger."

Much of Greek religious and social thought was adopted by such Roman thinkers as Cicero and Seneca, who in their exposition of caritas and beneficia echo Aristotle's teachings and the Greek understanding of philanthropia. Whether for the sake of honor or other motives, much charity was practiced in the Roman Empire, especially in the alimenta, measures introduced to assist orphans and poor children. Initiated by private philanthropists, the system was adopted by the imperial government after the reign of Nerva (ce 9698).

Charity in Christianity is synonymous with agape, or love. Whether it was a new commandment, as Christ had taught (John 13:34), is controversial. One thing is certain: Christianity proved more ecumenical and proclaimed that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor femalebut all [are] one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). In its practical application charity went beyond Jews, Greeks, and Romans. It stressed that "love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love" (1 John 4:78). God's love requires that human beings love one another (1 John 4:11). There is no better account of the nature and the fruits of Christian charity than the thirteenth chapter of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. Charity is defined as the love of God expressed through the God-made-man event in Christ and as humans' love of neighbor, the solvent of hatred of the enemy.

In postapostolic and medieval Christian thought, charity was the will of God, an act of propitiation to a means of eternal reward, a social obligation, and an act of righteousness. The motives might be selfless altruism, desire for fame, inner satisfaction, or a desire to imitate the divinity. Byzantine society, its government and church, monastic communities and individuals, made charity a major concern and established numerous institutions for the sick, orphans, widows, indigent, and others in need of rehabilitation and assistance. The Greek Christian tradition of charity, as selfless love and as acts of alms deeds, was established by the great Church fathers of the fourth century. To possess and practice charity is to imitate God, who is absolute and who has manifested love. Thus, Gregory the Theologian's admonition: "Prove yourself a godimitating the mercy of God. There is nothing more godly in man than to imitate God's beneficent acts" (Homily 14).

Charity was also a cardinal feature of medieval Western European society, which was guided by the Church there. Augustine of Hippo, who exerted a major influence on the ethics of Latin and Western Christianity, writes that charity must be an inward quality of a person before it can be expressed outwardly as love and alms deeds. One cannot love others if one does not love oneself. Selfless charity works no evil. Eleemosynary deeds without selfless charity are not a guarantee of divine favor. God considers not the person to whom the gift is given, but the spirit in which it is made (The City of God, Book 21, 27). And Caesarius of Arles, nearly a century of later, added that "if you possess charity [in the sense of selfless love], you have God; and if you have no God, what do you possess?" (Homily 22).

Charity as a synonym for love, either as God's love for man or man's reciprocal love for God expressed in acts of love for fellow men, a conception central to the Western tradition, is not explicitly stated in Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. Nor do we find definitions of charity similar to conceptions of philanthropia (Plato, Plutarch) or agape (New Testament). The Buddha's four noble truths (catvāri-ārya-satyāni) inherently include love and compassion toward fellow human beings. Buddhism sees suffering as a universal reality, but a reality with a cause. Suffering may be relieved through application of three principles: metta or maitri, loving kindness actively pursued; karuna, compassion or mercy, which does not repay evil with evil; and mudita, a feeling of approval of other people's good deeds. These principles find their expression in works of social welfare, including public works projects and the maintenance of hospitals and shelters or hospices.

The meaning of charity in Hinduism depends upon the interpretation of dharma, "the primary virtue of the active life of the Hindu." Dharma is the inner disposition and the conserving Idā, while the action by which it is realized is known as karman, which is expressed in physical, verbal, and mental forms. The physical forms consist of good deeds such as hospitality, duties to wife and children, and assistance to those in need. Verbal charity is identified with proper or gentle speech and courteous behavior. Mental charity is synonymous with piety.

Hinduism had given a primary position to personal ethics. And the Upaniads clearly indicate that each person is responsible for his economic or social condition. If individuals are moral and perfect and economically safe, society will ultimately be perfect. Thus, personal charity is enjoined to a degree that makes organized charity unnecessary.

If a human is a creature good by nature, then humans can develop ethics of benevolence, justice, or righteousness. Jainism, in particular, which stresses self-cultivation more than social involvement, sees self-perfection as the best means of alleviating social misery. The value of charity as an act of benevolence is judged by the degree of personal cultivation and sacrifice involved. It is a spontaneous and personal virtue, instinctive rather than acquired. "To love your neighbor as yourself" is inherent in the Vedic formula of unity with the absolute self, "That art thou" (tat tvam asi). Because one loves oneself, one is bound to love one's neighbor, who is not different from oneself.

Charity in Islam depends on the belief in an omnipotent God, master of humankind, which not only receives God's mercy but is always in danger of incurring his wrath. Thus, mankind needs to serve God by means of good works, including almsgiving, both voluntary offerings (sadaqat ) and legally proscribed ones (zakāt ), kindness, and good treatment of parents, orphans, and the elderly. A summary of Islam's moral code bearing on charity is found in the Qurʾān's seventeenth sūrah, lines 2330. "The Lord has decreed kindness to parents. Give the kinsman his due, and the needy, and the wayfarer. Come not near the wealth of the orphan." These and other similar admonitions constitute the outward signs of piety, the means of expiating offenses, and the path to ultimate salvation. The specific forms of charity in Islam were also given institutional expression through endowments known as a waqf.

Whether or not influenced by religious traditions or humanistic motives inherent in natural law, there are in today's world hundreds of national and international organizations dedicated to some forms of charitable activity. A few of the better known charitable agencies would include CARE, Oxfam, UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund), and Civil Society International.

CARE, an international consortium of member states, is devoted to distribution of food and clothes to the needy but also dedicated to the reduction of poverty among the world's poorest countries. Like CARE, Oxfam, in addition to practical daily charities, tries to find solutions to overcome poverty and improve health. It responds to needs of countries that have suffered from earthquakes, floods, and epidemics.

UNICEF, under the aegis of the United Nations, is committed to charity affecting poor and destitute children. Health care, improved nutrition, clean water, education are some of UNICEF's priorities.

Among its various missions, the works of Civil Society International includes aid to the poor, the orphaned, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled.

See Also

Almsgiving; Grace; Hospitality; Zakāt.


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Demetrios J. Constantelos (1987 and 2005)


views updated Jun 27 2018


The obligation to help the poor and the needy and to give them gifts is stated many times in the Bible and was considered by the rabbis of all ages to be one of the cardinal mitzvot of Judaism.

In the Bible

The Bible itself legislates several laws which are in effect a sort of tax for the benefit of the poor. Among these are *leket, shikhḥah, and pe'ah as well as the special tithe for the poor (see *ma'aser). The institution of the sabbatical year (see *Sabbatical Year and Jubilee) was in order "that the poor of the people may eat" (Ex. 23: 11) as well as to cancel debts about which the warning was given: "If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother; but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth. Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart, saying 'The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand'; and thine eye be evil against thy needy brother and thou give him nought; and he say unto the Lord against thee and it be sin in thee. Thou shalt surely give him, and thy heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him; because that for this thing the Lord thy God will bless thee in all thy work…." (Deut. 15:7–10). The Pentateuch also insists that the needy be remembered when the festivals are celebrated, e.g., "And thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless and the widow that are in the midst of thee" (16:11, 14). The Bible expects Israel to be aware of the needs of the poor and the stranger (who is considered to be in an inferior economic position) because Israel itself had experienced this situation in Egypt: "Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (10:19) and promises "for this thing the Lord thy God will bless thee in all thy work and in all that thou puttest thy hand unto" (15:10).

Charity is an attribute of God Himself: "For the Lord your God, He is God of gods, and Lord of lords.… He doth execute justice for the fatherless and widow and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment" (10:17, 18), a theme which was developed at considerable length by the psalmist (cf. Ps. 145:15, 16; 132:15). Both the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel considered charity as an indispensable requirement for a life of piety. Indeed, Isaiah proclaims that the "acceptable day to the Lord" is not the fast which only consists of afflicting the soul and wearing sackcloth and ashes, but rather the day on which bread is dealt to the hungry, the poor that are cast out are brought into the house, and the naked clothed (Is. 58:5–7); Ezekiel (16:49) attributes the destruction of Sodom to its lack of charity, "neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy." "A woman of valor" is one who "stretcheth out her hand to the poor; Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy" (Prov. 31:20). Charity to the poor is equated with "lending to the Lord, and his good deed will He repay unto him" (ibid., 19: 17). The virtue of charity and the fact that it deserves reward from God are stressed over and over in the arguments in the book of Job (22:5–9; 29:12, 13). Following the precedent in the Pentateuch, the book of Esther (9:12) makes sending gifts to the poor a part of the new festival it inaugurates (Purim), and when Ezra and Nehemiah taught the people anew the meaning of Rosh Ha-Shanah, they told them, "Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared" (Neh. 8:10).

In the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

Although the idea of charity and almsgiving is spread throughout the whole of the Bible, there is no special term for it. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, adopted the word צְדָקָה (ẓedakah) for charity, and it is used (but not exclusively so) throughout rabbinic literature in the sense of helping the needy by gifts. It has been suggested that the word ẓedakah in this sense already appears in Daniel (4:24) and in the Apocrypha (Ben Sira 3:30; 7:10 and Tobit 4:7; 12:8–9); in some of the verses the context would seem to bear out such a supposition. All this indicates, however, is that the term had come into use in the post-biblical period; in Talmud times it was entirely accepted to the extent that the rabbis interpreted biblical passages where the word certainly does not mean charity in the sense of their own usage. The word has since passed into popular usage and is almost exclusively used for charity. The term חֶסֶד (ḥesed, "loving-kindness"), which is used widely in the Bible, has taken on the meaning of physical aid, or lending without interest (see *gemilut ḥasadim).

charity as Ẓedakah

The word ẓedakah literally means "righteousness" or "justice"; by their very choice of word the rabbis reveal a great deal of their attitude toward the subject, for they see charity not as a favor to the poor but something to which they have a right, and the donor, an obligation. In this way they teach "The poor man does more for the householder (in accepting alms) than the householder does for the poor man (by giving him the charity)" (Lev. R. 34:8) for he gives the householder the opportunity to perform a mitzvah. This attitude stemmed from the awareness that all men's possessions belong to God and that poverty and riches are in His hand. This view is aptly summed up in Avot (3:8): "Give unto Him of what is His, seeing that thou and what thou hast are His" and is further illustrated in a story told of *Rava. A poor man came before Rava who asked him what he usually had for his meal. The man replied, "Fatted chicken and old wine." "But do you not" said Rava "feel worried that you are a burden on the community?" "Do I eat what is theirs?" said the man, "I eat what is God's" (exegesis to Ps. 145:15). At that point Rava's sister brought him a gift of a fatted chicken and some old wine which Rava understood to be an omen and apologized to the poor man (Ket. 67b).

The importance the rabbis attached to the mitzvah of ẓedakah can be understood from R. Assi who stated that "ẓedakah is as important as all the other commandments put together" (bb 9a) and from R. Eleazar who expounded the verse "To do righteousness (ẓedakah) and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice" (Prov. 21:3) to mean that charity is greater than all the sacrifices (Suk. 49b). Ẓedakah, to the rabbis, hastens redemption (bb 10a), ensures that the doer will have wise, wealthy, and learned sons (bb 19b), and atones for sins (bb 9a). Giving charity is the way in which man can "walk after the Lord your God" (Deut. 13:5) and be saved from death (Prov. 1:2). Together with Torah and service (i.e., prayer), the practice of charity is one of the pillars on which the world rests (Avot 1:2). Giving charity does not impoverish and not giving is tantamount to idolatry (Ket. 68a). Charity is an act of devotion and a complement to prayer; as such, the wise give charity just before praying as it is written, "and I, in righteousness (ẓedek) will see Thy face" (Ps. 17:15; bb 9a).

Since ẓedakah is considered a biblical commandment the rabbis found it necessary – as in the case of every other mitzvah – to define it in minute detail, e.g., who is obligated to give, who is eligible to receive, how much should be given and in what manner. These laws are scattered throughout the Talmud and were codified by Maimonides in his Yad in Hilkhot Mattenot Aniyyim, the first six chapters of which deal with the laws of leket, shikḥah, and pe'ah, and the last four, with the general laws of charity. In the Tur and Shulḥan Arukh, the laws are codified in Yoreh De'ah 247–59.

givers and receivers of charity

Everybody is obliged to give charity; even one who himself is dependent on charity should give to those less fortunate than himself (Git. 7a). The court can compel one who refuses to give charity – or donates less than his means allow – to give according to the court's assessment. The recalcitrant can even be flogged, and should he still refuse to give, the court may appropriate his property in the assessed sum for charity (Ket. 49b; Maim. Yad., Mattenot Aniyyim 7:10).

For the purposes of charity, a poor man is one who has less than 200 zuz (200 dinar – each of which coins is the equivalent of 96 barley grains – of a mixture of ⅞ bronze and ⅛ silver). This sum is the criterion if it is static capital (i.e., not being used in business); if, however, it is being used, the limit is 50 zuz (ibid., 9:13). A man with more than these sums is not entitled to take leket, shikhḥah, and pe'ah, the poor man's tithe or charity – and he who does will be reduced to real poverty (ibid., 10:19). Charity should be dispensed to the non-Jewish poor in order to preserve good relations; however, charity should not be accepted from them unless it is entirely unavoidable. Women take precedence over men in receiving alms, and one's poor relatives come before strangers. The general rule is "the poor of your own town come before the poor of any other town," but this rule is lifted for the poor of Ereẓ Israel who take precedence over all (Sh. Ar., yd 251:3). A traveler in a strange town who is out of funds is considered to be poor and may take charity even though he has money at home. When he returns to his home, he is not obliged to repay the charity he has taken (Pe'ah 5:4). A man is not obliged to sell his household goods to maintain himself but is eligible for charity (Pe'ah 8:8); even if he owns land, houses, or other property, he is not required to sell them at a disadvantage if the prices are lower than usual (bk 7a–b). It is permitted to deceive a poor man who, out of pride, refuses to accept charity, and to allow him to think that it is a loan; but a miser who refuses to use his own means is to be ignored (Ket. 67b).

the amount of charity to be given

To give a tenth of one's wealth to charity is considered to be a "middling" virtue, to give a 20th or less is to be "mean"; but in Usha the rabbis determined that one should not give more than a fifth lest he become impoverished himself and dependent on charity (Ket. 50a; Maim. Yad., loc. cit., 7:5). The psychological needs of the poor should be taken into consideration even though they may appear to be exaggerated. Thus a once wealthy man asked Hillel for a horse and a runner to go before him, which Hillel supplied; on another occasion, when Hillel could not afford to hire a runner for him, Hillel acted as one himself (Ket. 67a). This attitude is based on the interpretation of the verse "thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him … for his need which he wanteth" (Deut. 15:8), the accent being on "his" and "he"; however, on the basis of the same verse, the rabbis taught that "you are required to maintain him but not to enrich him," stressing the word "need" (Ket. 67a). "We must be more careful about charity than all the other positive mitzvot because ẓedakah is the criterion of the righteous (ẓaddik), the seed of Abraham, as it is written 'For I have singled him [Abraham] out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just [ẓedakah; Gen. 18:19]' … and Israel will only be redeemed by merit of charity, as it is written 'Zion shall be redeemed with justice, And they that return of her with righteousness [ẓedakah'; Isa. 1:17]'" (Maim. Yad, loc. cit. 10:1).

manner of dispensing charity

This appreciation of the importance of charity led the rabbis to be especially concerned about the manner in which alms are to be dispensed. The prime consideration is that nothing be done that might shame the recipient. "R. Jonah said: It is not written 'Happy is he who gives to the poor,' but "Happy is he who considers the poor' (Ps. 41:2): i.e., he who ponders how to fulfill the command to help the poor. How did R. Jonah act? If he met a man of good family who had become impoverished he would say, 'I have heard that a legacy has been left to you in such a place; take this money in advance and pay me back later.' When the man accepted it he then said to him, 'It is a gift'" (tj, Pe'ah 8:9, 21b). When R. Yannai saw someone giving a zuz to a poor man in public, he said, "It were better not to have given rather than to have given him and shamed him" (Ḥag. 5a). Out of consideration for the sensibilities of the poor, the rabbis considered the best form of almsgiving to be that in which neither the donor nor the recipient knew each other: "Which is the ẓedakah which saves from a strange death? That in which the giver does not know to whom he has given nor the recipient from whom he has received" (bb 10a), and R. Eliezer saw the "secret" giver as being greater than Moses (bb 9b). Stories are told throughout the Talmud illustrating this principle and relating how the pious devised ingenious methods of giving alms so as to remain anonymous (Ket. 67b.; Ta'an. 21b–22a, et al.). For the same reason, it is important to receive the poor in good humor, and even if one cannot afford to give, one must at least appease the poor with words (Lev. R. 34:15; Maim Yad loc. cit. 10:5).

Maimonides (Yad, loc. cit. 10:7–12) lists eight ways of giving ẓedakah which are progressively more virtuous: to give (1) but sadly; (2) less than is fitting, but in good humor; (3) only after having been asked to; (4) before being asked; (5) in such a manner that the donor does not know who the recipient is; (6) in such a manner that the recipient does not know who the donor is; and (7) in such a way that neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other. The highest form of charity is not to give alms but to help the poor to rehabilitate themselves by lending them money, taking them into partnership, employing them, or giving them work, for in this way the end is achieved without any loss of self-respect at all.

"charity wardens"

"In every town where there are Jews they must appoint 'charity wardens' [gabba'ei ẓedakah], men who are well-known and honest that they should collect money from the people every Sabbath eve and distribute it to the poor.… We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which does not have a charity fund" (Yad, loc. cit. 9:1–3). Because the charity warden was involved in the collection and distribution of public funds, special care was taken to ensure that there should not be even the slightest suspicion of dishonesty. The actual collection had to be made by at least two wardens who were not permitted to leave each other during the course of it. The distribution of the money was to be made by at least three wardens in whose hands lay the decision as to whom to give and how much. Besides money, food and clothing were also distributed. It seems that the poor were registered with the fund and mendicants who went from door to door begging were not to be given any sizable sums (bb 9a); the fund did, however, supply the needs of strangers. Apart from maintaining the poor, the fund was also used for redeeming captives and dowering poor brides, both of which were considered to be among the most virtuous of acts. In addition to the fund (kuppah), there were also communal soup kitchens (*tamḥui) at which any person with less than enough for two meals was entitled to eat (Yad, loc. cit. 9:13).

Collecting and distributing charity is to some extent distasteful work and at times even humiliating. In order to encourage men to undertake it, the rabbis interpreted several scriptural verses as extolling the wardens who are considered to be "eternal stars" and greater even than the givers (bb 8a, 9a). R. Yose, however, prayed "May my lot be with those who collect charity rather than with those who distribute it" (Shab. 118b), apparently preferring the risk of humiliation to that of misjudgment.

Charity is a form of vow, and a promise to give must be fulfilled immediately (Yad, loc. cit. 8:1). Generally speaking, the charity money must be used for the purpose for which it was given, and it is forbidden to divert the funds to some other cause. For a more detailed discussion, see *Hekdesh.

the accepting of charity

When necessary, accepting charity is perfectly legitimate and no shame attaches itself to the poor who are otherwise unable to support themselves. However, one is advised to do everything in one's power to avoid having to take alms: "Make your Sabbath a weekday (by not eating special food or wearing good clothes) rather than be dependent on other people" (Pes. 112a); and, "Even a wise and honored man should do menial work (skinning unclean animals) rather than take charity" (Pes. 113a). The greatest of the sages did physical labor in order to support themselves and remain independent. "A person who is really entitled to take charity but delays doing so and so suffers rather than be a burden to the community will surely be rewarded and not die before he reaches a position in which he will be able to support others. About such a person was it written: 'Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord' (Jer. 17:7)" (Yad, loc. cit. 10:18).

[Raphael Posner]

In the Middle Ages

The ideology of charity changed in consonance with contemporary attitudes and socioeconomic developments. The most exacting formulation of the obligations required by charity is that put forward by *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz (13th century): "As God gives riches to the wealthy and does not give to the poor, He gives to the one sufficient to sustain a hundred – The poor come and cry to God: you gave to this one sufficient to sustain a thousand and yet he is unwilling to give me charity. [Accordingly] God punishes the rich man as though he had robbed many poor; he [the rich man] is told: I gave you riches so that you could give according to the ability of your riches to the poor, and you did not give. [Thus] I shall punish you as though you had robbed them, and you had repudiated My pledge [pikkadon]; for I gave you riches that you might divide them among the poor and you appropriated them for yourself " (Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. Wistinezki, par. 1345, p. 331). This conception views the precept of charity as enjoining the redistribution of means according to the divine rules of social equality and justice. It underlies many other, much more conservative, conceptions of charity. In Jewish tradition charity begins at home. The broad family circle is the primary and basic unit for giving relief, the *community being the second. *Begging was not considered shameful up to the 18th century. Social techniques and institutions for charitable purposes emerged in Jewish communities at a very early period. As Jews became increasingly concentrated in towns, in an environment of fierce rejection and hostility, Jewish feelings of solidarity and readiness to help their needy members correspondingly strengthened and broadened. The instability of the Jewish economic position in many countries throughout generations, and insecurity of property ownership and residence during the innumerable persecutions, massacres, and expulsions to which Jews were subjected, made the rich Jew of today a likely candidate for charity tomorrow, or the reverse. Much of the Jewish resilience and astonishing capacity for rehabilitation and social regeneration have their basis in the broadening of scope and consistent application of charity among Jews, to comprise all aspects of mutual help and social reconstruction. Nurtured in this tradition, Jews have been, and continue to be, open to compassion for the unfortunate and ready to help needy people and humanitarian and philanthropic causes far beyond their own community.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]

Regular charitable institutions and forms of social assistance – always in conjunction with individual help and almsgiving – were generally in the form of (1) money through the charity box (kuppah); (2) gifts in kind (tamḥui – soup kitchen); (3) clothing; and (4) burial. The first was the major form of charitable relief. The ancient custom of providing charity through the donation of produce was largely abandoned by the urban communities of the Middle Ages. Relief in kind was limited to the distribution of maẓẓot, sacramental wine, or feasts for the poor at weddings and other celebrations. It was also customary in the late Middle Ages among Ashkenazi Jewry for each householder to deposit a ticket or tickets (pletten) in an urn, to be drawn preferably by the parnas ("elder") or a special almoner (plettenteiler). This served a poor man as a meal ticket in a particular home for a day; often it also entitled him to a night's lodging. Usually, the host brought the guest with him from the synagogue on Friday evening for the Sabbath. The charity box became the major means of solicitation. R. *Moses b. Jacob of Coucy (13th century) states that when he visited Spain, he saw the charity wardens making the rounds daily and then distributing the proceeds on Fridays. Boxes and plates were circulated in homes, in the synagogue on the eve of major holidays, including gifts to the poor on Purim, in the women's section of the house of prayer, in the cemetery, or wherever the populace assembled. It was understood that the legal requirement was that each householder allocate at least a tithe (ma'aser) to charity, but no more than one-fifth of his income. In practice other formulas had to be found in order to shift the burden onto the wealthier residents rather than overtax the less well-to-do. Taxes for poor relief were imposed by the community. In Russia the charities department of the kahal was often called the ẓedakah gedolah ("community chest" or "welfare committee"). The officers in charge of this chest dealt with the collection and administration of all charities. Donations were collected in small amounts at frequent intervals. The sources of income were manifold: taxes, donations, legacies, fines, rental of community property, or interest on foundation funds.

charitable associations

Though charitable associations (*ḥevrah) are not mentioned in northern France in the 11th and 12th centuries because the communities were small, they proliferated there in subsequent centuries. Before long the larger settlements had a multiplicity of charitable societies. In 1380 the Perpignan community in southern France had five associations: talmud torah, lights for the synagogue, sick care, general charity, and burial. In 1382 in Saragossa, Spain, the Bicurolim (Bikkur Ḥolim – "visiting the sick") society obtained permission to build a synagogue. After 1492 Spanish exiles brought their associations to the countries where they settled. The comparatively small community of Verona Jewry in 1750 had fifteen societies for poor relief, burial, care of the aged, and for religious and educational purposes. Soon every large community had a number of charitable societies, and even associations designed mainly for mutual aid, religious, and other purposes made charity one of their functions. Charitable associations imposed admission fees on new members, weekly dues, fees for burial or other services, fines for infringement of rules, honors auctioned in the house of prayer, charges for listing and reading of the names of deceased relatives at memorial services, special assessments at banquets or family celebrations, payment on conferment of honorary titles such as ḥaver and morenu among Ashkenazi Jews, and many others.

Although women always performed the ritual of preparing deceased women for burial, it seems that the first society consisting exclusively of females, the nashim ẓadkaniyyot ("pious women"), was founded in Berlin in 1745. They cared for sick or bedridden women, gave medical aid, offered prayers for the seriously ill, sewed shrouds, and performed the ritual ablutions before burial. In the 18th century youth societies were also formed in Germany, mainly for the care of the sick, but also for a large variety of other purposes.

Most influential among the associations was the burial society which adopted the generic name of all associations, *ḥevra kaddisha ("Holy Society"). While it engaged mainly in supervision of the local cemetery and performed the burial rites for every Jew, it also became a major philanthropic agency, assuming responsibility for burying the poor. In more recent years the general term for the burial society, gomelei ḥesed shel emet ("providers of true loving-kindness"), became the specific name for that branch of the association which was concerned solely with burial of the poor. In addition, as one of the most influential and affluent associations, it found itself dispensing relief for the poor and the distressed. Members of the bikkur ḥolim ("visiting the sick") association visited or made arrangements for others to visit the bedridden poor. Ideally, they provided a physician, medicine, and nursing care as well as spiritual solace and prayers for recovery, and sometimes even a night vigil. However, since all local sick persons were cared for in their own homes, they were mainly dependent on the resources of their immediate family and the transient sick were usually placed in the local *hekdesh ("hospital," "hospice," "poor house") along with other transients of both sexes. This created highly unsanitary conditions. Some communities had a hakhnasat oreḥim ("welcoming visitors") society, which owned a hostelry or rented a room or two from a resident family to accommodate respectable and scholarly travelers who would not stay in the hekdesh. Nor would the local poor stay there. In the Middle Ages and as late as the 18th century the larger communities hired a general practitioner or surgeon who, among his other duties, was responsible for providing medical care to the indigent; the same was true of druggists and barbers (who not only cut hair but also "let" blood and applied leeches). Those who could afford it paid; the poor obtained these services free. The kahal, or a specialized association, usually called the *hakhnasat kallah, made provision for brides without dowries. There were also associations that catered to the religious needs of the destitute; a Sandak group arranged for circumcisions and the refreshments that followed; mezuzot and other ritual objects were provided; a talmud torah was maintained to educate the children of the poor; and finally there were associations for loans at little or no interest, called gemilut ḥasadim, halva'at ḥen ("loan of grace"), or mishmeret kodesh ("holy watch"). This service was of great assistance to small businessmen and artisans.

Modern Times

characteristics of social welfare

From the 19th century the attitude toward the beggar hardened, and alms were sometimes even considered socially harmful: the old application of Jewish charity assumed new forms consistent with its ancient spirit. The very term charity was discarded in favor of "social welfare" or "service." Once largely direct and indiscriminate, charity was now delegated to special agencies and supervised by trained and paid professionals. Scientific studies of the facts and causes of distress and thorough investigation and control of the administration of relief replaced haphazard lay activity. Social welfare became secularized and impersonal; a sense of civic duty largely replaced an awareness of the Divine Commandment. Momentary relief gave way to long-range remedial and preventive methods. Human suffering became the responsibility of society in general, of the political state. National and local legislation provided old-age pensions, medical insurance, and other fringe benefits, while trade unions, associations of small businessmen, fraternal and other groups adopted cooperative methods of mutual aid. Entire societies were built on the idea of equal opportunity or on collectivistic principles. These general developments together with the movement of large Jewish populations from areas of scarcity to countries of plenty (and later the nearly total destruction of large and impoverished communities by the Nazis) have gone a long way toward reducing poverty among Jews. It took massive programs of relief to achieve this state of affairs. Aid to immigrants, relief of suffering arising from several wars, and the return to the land movement in the Western Hemisphere and in Ereẓ Israel required the concerted effort of the entire Jewish people. The whole structure of charity changed: associations for visiting the sick were supplanted by medical and health services, including spacious, well-equipped hospitals; apprenticing a poor boy to an artisan gave way to vocational guidance and trade schools. At first the old-timers fought the new methods, but they were forced to yield to the standards of a newer generation. New and highly specialized institutions arose to serve the blind, the deaf and the dumb, the tubercular, etc. A profusion of local, national, and international philanthropic enterprises came into being, and before long the Jews surpassed other national, ethnic, or religious groups in the care of their coreligionists and in the extent of their fund raising for charitable causes.

local agencies

A great many institutions for a large variety of services were set up on a local scale as well as the federation of all or most local causes under one all-embracing organization. The medieval hekdesh gave way to modern alms-houses and hospitals. In London the Spanish and Portuguese congregation founded an almshouse in 1703 and a hospital (Beth Holim) in 1747. In the Ashkenazi community the Jews' Hospital (Neveh Ẓedek) was established in 1807, and the Solomon and Moses Almshouse in 1862. In Paris a general hospital was opened in 1842, another by Baron Rothschild in 1852, and a maternity hospital the following year. In New York Mount Sinai Hospital opened its doors in 1852. Since then virtually all communities in the United States with a Jewish population of over 30,000 have had hospitals under Jewish auspices. The Montefiore Clinic for Chronic Invalids opened its doors in New York in the early 1880s. Hospitals soon began to develop their own nursing and medical schools. Child care services consisted at first of orphanages in Charleston, s.c. (1801); in London, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Orphan Society (1703) and the Ashkenazi Orphan Asylum (1831); orphanages in Berlin (1833); and orphanages in New York (1860). Gradually, the emphasis shifted to foster home placement, adoption, and small-group institutional care. Practically every large city established a home for the aged: Hamburg in 1796, Berlin in 1839, Frankfurt in 1844, and New York in 1848. Such institutional care was soon reserved only for persons who were unable to care for themselves, and was supplemented by boarding and foster home placement, homemaker services, sheltered workshops, recreation programs, etc. Facilities were provided for the care of the blind, the deaf and dumb, the insane, the delinquent, the defective, and many other handicapped and anti-social individuals. Vienna had a Jewish home for the blind in 1872, and one for deaf and dumb Jewish children in 1884. The Philadelphia Hebrew Sunday School Society (1838), followed by the Hebrew Education Society (1849), was one of a large number of schools established mainly for the poor. The Neighborhood Settlement Houses in America served to introduce the immigrant to the language, customs, and culture of his new country.

local central agencies

A movement also started to unite several local charities under one administration. First was the Paris Comité de Bienfaisance in 1809, followed by the Hebrew Benevolent Society in New York and the United Hebrew Beneficial Society in Philadelphia, both in 1822, the London Spanish-Portuguese Board of Guardians in 1837, and the Berlin Unterstuetzungsverein in 1838. In 1859 Ashkenazi Jews launched another Board of Guardians in London. In Chicago the same year nine groups formed the United Hebrew Relief Association. In New York the Hebrew Sheltering and Guardian Society originated in 1879. The United Hebrew Charities in New York, established in 1874, later changed its name to the Jewish Family Services. These are only a sample of the prevailing 19th-century trend in welfare groups. Toward the end of the century all local institutions began to band together for fund raising for national and overseas causes. In the course of time most of these central agencies served all causes while retaining their old names. Boston Jewry established the first Federated Jewish Charities in 1895; Cincinnati conducted the first united campaign in 1896; Chicago launched the Associated Jewish Charities in 1900; and the first Jewish Welfare Fund was started in Oakland, Calif., in 1925. Before long every sizable Jewish community in America conducted only one fund-raising campaign each year, eliminating multiple appeals and persistent solicitations and cutting down campaign costs. This arrangement made possible the development of central functional services, such as bureaus of Jewish education, community councils for overall coordination or for anti-defamation work, vocational, family, and medical services, community centers, and many others. The proceeds from such united campaigns often far exceeded the previous combined collections of the constituent agencies. National and overseas causes now had an address to turn to in each community.

national agencies

The first half of the 20th century also witnessed the evolution of a host of agencies that operated on a national scale, often coordinating the activities of local units. In Germany the *Deutsch-Israelitischer Gemeindebund was formed in 1869 to exchange information on philanthropic endeavor in all communities large and small, including villages. The main office in Berlin had provincial branches and was charged with the supervision of hospitals, houses for the aged, the blind, the deaf and dumb, orphanages, and many other institutions. The communities of Great Britain and other countries also developed national welfare services. For a long time French Jewry had no nationwide organization for social welfare; each community had to fend for itself and poverty was widespread. In 1945 the Comité Juif d'Action Sociale et de Reconstruction was formed. In the United States there were 35 national social welfare agencies in the late 1960s. The *Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (1932) provided national and regional services to 220 affiliates in the United States and Canada. The *National Jewish Welfare Board coordinated the work of Jewish community centers and Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Associations, as well as the religious and welfare needs of Jews in the armed services and in veterans' hospitals. *B'nai B'rith engaged in educational and philanthropic programs. The Family Location Service, formerly the National Desertion Bureau (1905), gave help in cases of desertion or other forms of marital breakdown. The *National Council of Jewish Women (1893) was one of a number of agencies dedicated not only to Jewish causes but also to the general advancement of human welfare and a democratic way of life. There were a number of national medical societies, such as the Leo N. Levi Memorial National Arthritis Hospital, the American Medical Center at Denver, Colorado, formerly the Jewish Consumptives' Relief Society (1904), the City of Hope Medical Center in Los Angeles, California (1913), and others for asthmatic, retarded, and arthritic patients. Most of the services were non-sectarian. Other agencies were dedicated to furthering agriculture among Jews, to helping the blind, conciliating disputes, and coordinating lay and professional endeavors in social service. There was a tendency in the U.S. for Jewish charities to extend their scope to all elements and to receive financial support not only from Jews but also from the government.

international agencies

Developments from the mid-19th century onward called for unprecedented Jewish philanthropic efforts on a worldwide scale. Almost simultaneously the Board of Delegates of American Israelites (1859) and the French *Alliance Israélite Universelle (1860) came into being to defend Jewish rights abroad. The Alliance offered help to needy Jews and maintained schools in many countries. Meanwhile, the London *Board of Deputies, established in 1760, began to extend the scope of its international activities, while the Anglo-Jewish Association was established in 1871 with similar objectives to those of the Alliance. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (hias) in New York (1884), reorganized in 1954 as *United hias Service, with affiliates all over the world, offered a variety of services to Jewish immigrants. The *Baron de Hirsch Fund (1891) sought to aid immigrants, teach them trades, and help in their education. The *Jewish Colonization Association (ica) tried rather unsuccessfully to establish agricultural colonies in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the U.S. The German *Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden (1901) also undertook foreign aid similar to that of the Alliance. The French Fond Social Juif Unifié, patterned on the American United Jewish Appeal, originated in 1949. The *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (jdc; 1914) has developed a vast network of activities in welfare, medical, and rehabilitation programs. The American *ort Federation (1924) has trained Jewish men and women in the technical trades and agriculture. This organization, as well as *ose, which was engaged in medical and public health programs, originated in Russia. The fund-raising organizations furthering a Jewish National Home have experienced the greatest growth. *Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America (1912), has been supporting Israel's medical and public health system, has transported young newcomers to Ereẓ Israel, maintained and educated them through *Youth Aliyah, and engaged in Zionist educational work; *Wizo (1920) has fulfilled a similar function in other parts of the world. The Palestine Foundation Fund (*Keren Hayesod, 1921) has been the financial arm of the World Zionist Organization. The largest of the American funds is the *United Jewish Appeal (1939) which has raised vast sums for Israel and for worldwide causes. This list of international agencies is far from exhaustive.


It was prophetic Judaism that upheld the cause of the poor by regarding their condition as brought on not by themselves but by the evils of the social order. Ever since then Jews have sought to care for the underprivileged. Throughout history there have always existed large numbers of Jews in need of help. There is still a good deal of Jewish poverty in many countries. In Israel, which aimed at building an egalitarian society, and where the pioneers established collective settlements, the problem of poverty is still far from solved, since Israel is the haven for disadvantaged Jews throughout the world. Yet there is no doubt that Jews have made a most significant contribution to charity and welfare. Their pioneering work in methods of central fund raising and distribution through their federations of charities has been most valuable. Since World War ii, when their existence as a people was threatened, the Jews have risen to the challenge by an unprecedented outpouring of generosity and philanthropy.

[Isaac Levitats]


in bible and talmud: C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), chap. 16; em, 5 (1968), 674 f.; et, 6 (1954), 149–53. medieval and modern times: ajyb; Baron, Community, index; B. Bogen, Jewish Philanthropy (1917); I. Levitats, Jewish Community in Russia (1943); J. Bergman, Ha-Ẓedakah be-Yisrael (1944); J. Marcus, Communal Sick-Care in the German Ghetto (1947); Neuman, Spain, 2 (1948), 161–81; V.D. Lipman, A Century of Social Service: The Jewish Board of Guardians (1959); Chipkin, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews, 2 (19603), 1043–75; H. Lurie, A Heritage Affirmed: The Jewish Federation Movement (1961); R. Morris and M. Freund (eds.), Trends and Issues in Jewish Social Welfare in the United States, 1899–1952 (1966).


views updated May 17 2018


Charity (from Old French charité, Latin caritas ) stands in general for the state of being in and responding to God's love and favor, more specifically for our wholehearted love of God, who reveals Himself in the Scriptures, and for the love of our neighbor as ourselves there inculcated, and most specifically for the third and greatest of the theological virtues. These senses are kept in the vocabulary of English-speaking Catholicism, although there, and even more elsewhere, the word has gone down in the world and is applied to an active benevolence toward those in need and sometimes to a dutiful or even a patronizing regard for those one finds socially and psychologically taxing. This decayed usage, however, will be neglected in this article, which summarizes the teaching of (1) the Scriptures; (2) the Fathers; and (3) St. Thomas Aquinas, whose theological formulation is at once more systematic than that of his predecessors and less confined by the concept of obligation than that of most of his successors. There is need to avoid the two extremes: making charity an ineffable impulse, defying description, and isolating it as a technical way of loving God or of treating one's neighbor with supernatural kindliness.

Sacred Scripture. Words from the Hebrew root verb 'āhēb are rendered to mean, first, God's love for men; second, men's love for God; and third, the love between men in this religious setting. Such love involving a special choice, as in the Latin dilectio, is called γάπη, a word adopted by the NT and later Church writers to signify the love of God for Christ (Jn 17.36) and for men (Rom 5.8), of Christ for men (Rom 8.35), of men for God (Jn 2.5) and for one another (Jn 12.35); there is no clear instance of its employment in a non-Christian context. 'Éρως, a sexual love, is not referred to in the NT, which speaks of πιθυμία i.e., concupiscentia; there also φιλία means ordinary friendship or natural affection.

Agape was translated by the Vulgate Bible as caritas, possibly because amor had impure associations and dilectio and amicitia were too secular. Charity is the word consistently used by the Reims and Douay versions, and often by the Authorized and Confraternity Versions; and it never occurs in Revised Version, though the Revised Standard Version adopts it for Acts 9.36; it seems less ambiguous than "love" and will not go flat while kept close to the etymology carus, French cher, and to the idea of holding dear and cherishing.

The dominant theme is that God first loves us (1 Jn 4.9) and commends His charity toward us in the death of His Son (Rom 5.810). Our love in return springs from the new man who is now dead to sin and born afresh to life in Christ (Jn 3.3; Rom 6.6; 2 Cor 5.17; Col 3.10; 1 Pt 1.23). We are now members of God's family, like little children (Mt 8.2), receiving the spirit of adoption whereby we cry "Abba! Father! " (Rom 8.15; Gal 4.6). The Trinity dwells in us (Jn 14.23); we are members of the same body of Christ (1 Cor 12.27), branches of the same vine (Jn 15.4); and Christ lives in us (Gal 2.20). We form one body and one spirit in the hope of our calling (Eph4.4), to become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pt 1.4).

To live in this way goes with loving God with our whole heart and soul and mind and loving our neighbor as ourselves; such is the fulfillment of the law, the summing up of all the Commandments and prophecies (Mt 22.3640; Rom 13.910). This is charity, that we walk according to God's Commandments (2 Jn ch. 6); and the thought was related by St. John to the key ideas of God as light (Jn 1.4; 8.12; 1 Jn 1.5; 2.8), and life (Jn 1.4; 5.26;14.19), and Father (Jn 4.14; 14.2123; 15.10; 2 Jn 4), and to the revelation of God as charity itself (1 Jn 4.16). To St. Paul it was the bond of union (Rom 12.10; Eph 4.15; Col 1.4; 3.14) and the most excellent and lasting activity of immortal life (1 Cor 13.113). St. Peter preached the same message of charity born from incorruptible life and receiving salvation in the final issue (1 Pt 1.89; 22.23;3.8; 4.8).

The Fathers. The early writers of the Church devoted no set treatise to the virtue of charity. For them, it was the way of Christian life; and their teaching, which appeared in their comments and homilies on the Scriptures, was directed to maintaining the unity of the faithful, realized in the Eucharistic communion, and to fostering their practical love for one another. Thus SS. Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, and Polycarp. Clement of Alexandria was more speculative; charity is bound up with the gnosis, or knowledge of God freeing us from the material world. SS. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom brought out what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself. It was not until St. Augustine, named the Doctor Caritatis, that one sees the first sketches, somewhat darkly edged by the contrasts between the laws of nature and grace, of a systematic treatment. Charity is the perfect justice that obeys the sovereign law of love; the essence of sin is to go against it. The De diligendo Deo, though wrongly attributed to him, represents his doctrine; the classical synopsis of it is St. Thomas's three questions on the gospel law (Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 106108). Gregory the Great wrote as a pastoral theologian; and the topic of charity, although elaborated in terms of literature and spiritual direction by the great monastic writers, notably St. Bernard, and interpreted according to the Platonist mystical tradition, notably by the Victorines, received no strictly theological development until the 13th century, when the great scholastics, having girded up the loins of their understanding (1 Pt 1.13), set about analyzing the concepts in the Christian mind.

St. Thomas. Here St. Thomas offers the best theological centerpiece, for apart from the fact that he has been declared an authentic exponent of what the Church thinks, his treatment, which is profoundly scriptural, draws together the strands of many different traditions Platonist, Aristotelean, Stoic, patristic, and even romanticinto the best pattern of reference for later discussions and disagreements. The ex professo treatise of the Summa Theologiae on charity (2a2ae, 2346), which is followed here, should be complemented (1) by the questions on the nature of love (1a2ae, 2628), on the gospel law already referred to, which introduced the treatise on grace, on the life of perfection (2a2ae, 184); and (2) by the debates De caritate.

Friendship. Charity itself (2a2ae, 23) is introduced as the kind of love called friendship (23.1), in agreement with Our Lord's words, "No longer do I call you servants, but friends" (Jn 15.15). It goes beyond the love of what is good for us, as in the theological virtue of hope, and the disinterested love for another (benevolentia ) and the doing of good to another, to a condition of mutual loving between persons who are sharers. This sharing (communicatio, participatio ) is God's granting to us His own happiness, beatitudo. The teaching of Nicomachean Ethics book 8 on the association implied in all friendship is equably assumed into the apostolic preaching; our citizenship is in heaven in fellowship with God's Son (1 Cor1.9; Phil 3.20) and is invested with the NT κοινωνία. This is the basis that makes charity different from other forms of friendship and the friendliness that is part of social justice (2a2ae, 114); indeed all friendship that has this glow from within imparted by God's own joy is charity, and any religious account that excludes it may be talking about some sort of love of God, but not about charity (see friendship).

This relationship between persons means that the charity of God poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Rom 5.5), is still our own act of loving (23.2). We are not, as it were, swamped, for the first cause maintains secondary causes as principals (cf. 1a, 105.5); and were we to be merely God's instruments, then our active friendship with God would lack the spontaneity, ease, and delight to be expected of godlike operations. The argument against the singular opinion of Peter Lombard that charity is the Holy Spirit in us was confirmed at Trent (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 1529). It is wholly the effect of God's power, giving us a power, or virtus, of activity by which we pass from what we were to what we want to be. It is not one of the moral virtues enabling us to live according to right reason, but a theological virtue, conjoining us, as St. Augustine says, to God Himself (22.3). His goodness lies beyond the immediate objectives of all the other virtues; and consequently charity, through which we reach it, is a special virtue, although not in the limited sense that other virtues are, since its objective, which is not one among many particular kinds of good, embraces them all while holding them distinct and subordinate (23.4). Moreover, charity is a single virtue, for despite its manifold activities, its end and basis remain always the same, namely, God's sharing His goodness in everlasting happiness (23.5). It rests on God for Himself, not for what He gives to us, and therefore it is the greatest of all the virtues (23.6; cf. 1 Cor 12.8, 13).

St. Augustine spoke of virtue as the ordering of love; and although we may be well ordered with respect to particular and limited ends, we are not fully virtuous unless our charity bears us to the ultimate end of the whole of life (23.7); "if I distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, yet do not have charity, it profits me nothing" (1 Cor 13.3). From this principle is developed the theology of charity as the "form" of all the virtues (23.8). The term is used teleologically rather than typologically, for it is not that charity gives to each virtue its own specific interest, which is largely abstract, but that in the concrete it makes each virtue serve the final blessedness of being in love with God and His friendshence St. Paul's injunction, "Let all that you do be done in charity" (1 Cor 16.14). Here again, it is not that behavior has to become stilted or interrupted by an extrinsic ordination, as seems suggested by spiritual writers who have not grasped the theology of God's universal causality, but that it should well up unaffectedly from our friendship with God. "For his workmanship we are, created in Christ Jesus in good works" (Eph 2.10). There is a distinction between intention and attention; God can be actually, though implicitly, loved without being thought of, and He is virtually loved in all the activities, except sin, of those who continue to set their heart on Him. "For the rest, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever honorable, whatever just, whatever holy, whatever lovable, whatever of good repute, if there be any virtue, if anything worthy of praise, think upon these things" (Phil 4.8).

Charity in Relation to Us. Charity is an immortal love (2a2ae, 24), and therefore its seat is the will (appetitus intellectivus ), not the emotional powers (appetitus sensitivus ). It ranges beyond our present environment and breaks through the obscurities of faith to reach the mystery of God; "so that, being rooted and grounded in love, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know Christ's love which surpasses knowledge in order that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God" (Eph3.1819). This Pauline concept of being filled runs throughout this part of the theological study. For as charity is not limited by the knowledge furnished by the mind, so it lies more deeply in the will than at the level of its choices (24.1) and comes to us not through our own efforts but by God's gift, or "infusion" (24.2). And like his other supernatural gifts, "these are the work of one and the same Spirit, who allots to everyone according as he will" (1 Cor 12.11). And charity is not measured by natural capacity (24.3), nor is it because of temperament or force of circumstances that some become better lovers of God than others, but "according to the measure of Christ's bestowal" (Eph 4.7).

That charity can grow was declared at Trent (sess. 6, ch. 10), and theology draws analogies between bodily and spiritual increase through nourishment and exercise. The preoccupation of later scholastic writers with the amount (quantitas ) of charity and the effects on it of acts that are below strength (actus remissi ) may appear quaint to the modern reader, but the theory that it grows, not by addition, but by intensification, a deepening participation or possession (per majorem radicationem in subjecto ), accords with the psychology of disposition or "habits" (1a2ae, 5253) and the thought of St. Paul (Eph 3.17). To this growth no term can be fixed in this present life, because the love it shares, namely, the Holy Spirit, is infinite and so is the power of God who causes it; and man's questing heart can always love more than it does (24.47). On the other hand, venial sin does not reach deep enough directly to effect or cause a weakening of charity, although it may dispose to its being lost (24.10) through grave sin, for according to the teaching of the Church, charity in fact does not make a man impeccable (24.1112).

Charity, then, is an analogical idea in that a single meaning may exist at different strengths, and charity allows for a difference of degrees (secundum magis et minus ). This raises the question in spiritual theology whether and when charity in this life can be called perfect (24.8); and the discussion, which may be regarded as an extension of St. Thomas's fourth proof for the existence of God, proceeds according to the traditional Platonist terms of participation and of drawing closer to God. If love matches the beloved, then God alone can love Himself as much as He can be loved, and no creature can ever hope to attain such perfection. If love is in proportion to the lover, then different degrees are possible. God may be wholeheartedly and actually loved always, but this is the condition of charity as it is in heaven (caritas patriae ); until we see Him in vision and so long as we hold Him by faith, He does not always engage our attention and expressed affection. As for our love in the present life (caritas viae ), it is possible for us to set aside all other things, except insofar as the necessities of life require them, and devote ourselves to divine things. Yet such perfection is rare; what is common to all who are in God's friendship is that their whole heart is steadily (habitualiter ) given to God in such sort that they neither harbor nor will anything contrary to His love. This is sane and generous doctrine, and it avoids the division, of which the classical theologians of the Church have always been suspicious, between a mystical elite and plain Christians who are well content if they can keep the Commandments. The precepts of charity are first and foremost, not of the Decalogue (cf. 1a2ae, 100, 107; 2a2ae, 44); and it should be remembered that the "state" of perfection constituted by vows and the episcopal order is directly a category of canon law, not of spiritual theology (cf. 2a2ae, 184).

The progress possible in this life is stated according to three stagesbeginners (incipientes ), those who are advancing (proficientes ), and those who are well advanced (perfecti )which may be taken as corresponding approximately to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways (24.9). The distinction should be made to represent not three different compartments, but rather three emphases in principal occupations. At first we strive to keep alive our friendship with God, afterward seek to deepen it, and finally may come so to cling as to "desire to depart and to be with Christ" (Phil 1.23). The process is continuous; the end is in the beginning, the first grace of Baptism is the seed of glory, and holiness in this life is never so secure as not to be fearful of a fall; "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2.13).

The Objects of Charity. An esoteric treatment of such a high virtue is forestalled by the scriptural and patristic insistence on its social force: "If anyone says that he loves God, and hates his brother, he is a liar. For how can he who does not love his brother, whom he sees, love God, whom he does not see? And this commandment we have from Him, that he who loves God should love his brother also" (1 Jn 4.2021).

God is loved, first of all, not merely as integrating our human experience, but as revealing Himself and pledging the communication of His joy. That He is loved for His own sake was taken quite simply, until with the refinement of abstractions in theology and their isolation as representing concrete situations, coupled with a spiritual theory of abnegation and practice of introspection to bring about the purification of motives, men began to ask themselves whether the pure and disinterested love of God was compatible with thoughts of self or indeed with images of His Incarnation and Sacraments. The question, which came to a head in the troubles between Fénelon and Bossuet, is summed up by R. A. Knox [Enthusiasm (Oxford 1957) 249]: "When I meditate about God I seldom lose sight of what he is for me, whereas when I use the prayer of contemplation my mind is more easily directed to the thought of what God is in himself. The contrast should not be overstressed; if it had not been, Quietism would probably have ended with Molinos, and the Church in France would have been spared a long and painful controversy." Knox also draws attention to a certain Platonism separating pure forms from the rich complex of God's loving action in us. Moreover the theological sense of symbolism seems to have been lost (cf. 3a, 8.3 ad 3; 23.3) in an attempt to strip love down to one element. Certainly there was a movement against the pregnant words of Scripture: "If thou didst know the gift of God, and who it is who says to thee, Give me to drink, thou, perhaps, wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water" (Jn 4.10). God gives Christ to us, and has given us to Christ (Jn 17.6). "How can he fail to grant us also all things with him?" (Rom8.32). The ordinary teaching authority of the Church was quick to keep charity related to the ordinary works of virtue and quite properly expecting its reward not, as it were, by a quasi-juridical grant of a prize, but by the demand of love that it should find what it seeks (cf. 1a2ae, 114.4); "If anyone love me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him" (Jn 14.23).

The same movement of God goes to God and to all who are or can be His friends; it is not, as sometimes suggested, that we love God and because of this by a further and imperated act love our neighbor, as if one were our end and the other our means. Our love is elicited from charity (25.1), other persons being taken in God and as companions in His happiness; underlying this is the theology that creatures are true principal agents, though secondary, and true ends, though nonultimate. Notice also that we are bidden to do to our neighbor as we do to ourselves, and how unforced, and in a sense "undutiful," that is. It is to love our neighbor as a sharer in happiness, and this charity itself, not to make too fine a point, is itself lovable; for like happiness itself, it is not so much a virtue itself as a total condition (25.2).

And who is my neighbor? As in the story of the good Samaritan, charity is not restricted to a circle formed by one's customs, tastes, prejudices, or religious or cultural training; but as an impulse, it knows no limits: All creatures of mind and heart who can share in the fellowship of eternal life are the proper objects of its love, and other things too can be cherished as existing for divine honor and human benefit; so by charity does God love them (25.3). Strictly speaking we cannot be friends with ourselves. Yet as belonging to God, who is our friend, we should love ourselves, and also our bodies; an unearthly love that disdains the material world as evil is rejected (25.45). It will be noticed how sound Catholic tradition has excluded from this love in Christ neither the self nor the whole of creation that will be restored in Christ, "the firstborn of every creature, things visible and things invisible, and in him all things hold together, and through him he should reconcile all things, whether on earth or in the heavens" (Col 1.1520), "who will refashion the body of our lowliness, conforming it to the body of his glory, by the power by which he is able to subject all things to himself" (Phil 3.21).

"I say to you, love your enemies" (Mt 5.44). It would be perverse to force oneself to cherish an enemy as such. One may hate the sin, but not the sinner (25.7). As contained potentially at least in the divine goodness that charity loves, an enemy must be regarded with fundamental good will by a Christian and may not be denied a place among those whom one wishes well. Moreover, one must be prepared to love his neighbor effectively should the occasion arise and to do him the good of which he is in need. "If your enemy be hungry, give him food to eat, if he be thirsty, give him to drink" (Prv 25.21). The more we love God, however, the less we shall wait for this need or be blocked by any enmity (25.89); "If you salute your brethren only, what are you doing more than others? You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5.47, 48).

Priorities in Charity. Charity is not an attitude of generalized affection but has its predilections and special occasions (2a2ae, 26), according to two principles: (1) what is better (melior ), and therefore more like to God, and (2) what is nearer to us (conjunctior ); for as we have seen, such polarization is essential to charity as it is to friendship. God's love comes above all, for even in natural love the part loves the whole even more than itself; much more in charity, then, is He loved as the fount of all that shares His happiness (26.13). The only break with this rule comes from that kind of self-love called sin. For the rest, after God we should first love ourselves, not in any self-regarding sense, but with a sober recognition that unless we are friends with God we cannot be in charity with others, even though we set their eternal welfare above our temporal good (26.45).

Charity also responds to the varieties in companionship (consociatio ). It would be unreasonable to expect us to bear an equal affection for all; some do not enter into our life, and of those who do, some are better and therefore more lovable in themselves. Yet charity goes past esteem, and to others we warm because we are closer, and therefore love them with more intensity (26.612); there is no reason to suppose that any good reason for loving will be taken away in heaven (26.13).

Main Act of Charity. This is called dilectio (2a2ae, 27). "Dilection" is now a pallid translation, and there is no single equivalent term in English for this committed love that picks out its beloved. It seeks rather to love than to be loved; yet when it is mutual, all is well (27.1). It is not simple benevolence, although this is comprehended; but according to the dialectic of the deepest loving, often referred to in the Summa, this love, unlike knowing, transforms itself into the condition of its objectthe beloved is treated as the self, and the practical axiom of morality, that we should do to others as we would be done by, takes on a new dimension in the friendship of charity (27.2).

The loving is on account of (propter ) God, and nothing else. If one takes "on account of" in terms of final, formal, and efficient causality, then He is the ultimately, wholly, and underivatively lovable good; if it is taken in terms of material or dispositive causality, then rightly He is loved on account of other things, the blessings that draw us to Him gratefully, and even the penalties that make us fearful of losing Him (27.3). Moreover this love takes over where our knowledge leaves off, for faith is only a mediate and partial possession; whereas charity cleaves immediately "to God Himself and to other things only as being in Him," there is nothing in God that cannot be loved and nothing we can love that cannot be for Him (27.45). Finally, there is no limit to be set to this loving, and no excess is possible as there is in the moral virtues (27.6).

It may be observed parenthetically that although the terms of causality have been applied to charity and, by implication, to grace, both are constituted by the special presence of God as an object of knowledge and love, not by the general presence of His power (cf. 1a, 8.3). If we have to use the Aristotelean categories, it is to relation that we should look, and treat the life of divine grace and friendship within us as the coming forth into us of the life of the Blessed Trinity (cf. 1a, 43.3).

Corollaries. There is an abandon about charitymore congenially in the sense of being unconstrained than surrendered to outside controland its interior effects are joy, peace, and mercy (2a2ae, 2830). "These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full" (Jn 15.11); and again, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you" (Jn 14.27). Both are the consequences of virtue, rather than virtues in themselves, and are considered among the beatitudes and the fruits of the Spirit (cf. 1a2ae, 69.70). "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep" (Rom 12.15); misericordia seems to be a special virtue, although it is wider in meaning than the English "mercy," but includes all gracious, familiar, compassionate loving-kindness [cf. E. Hill, Blackfriars, 46(1965), 411417].

External Acts. External acts of charity are benefaction, almsgiving (see alms and almsgiving), and fraternal correction (2a2ae, 3135). "Therefore while we have time let us do good to all men" (Gal 6.10), beginning with those who are nearest to us. "He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 Jn 3.17); the giving we are charged with is conveniently summarized under the headings of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. "Do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thes 3.15); such a benefaction of charity is perhaps the most difficult to perform.

Sins against Charity. The sin against the principal act of charity is hate (2a2ae, 34). The sins against joy are acedia and envy (2a2ae, 35, 36). The first, well diagnosed by Cassian, is commonly translated as sloth, but it means rather a boredom with divine things, no more to be confused with the spiritual dryness described by the spiritual writers than the steady choice of charity is to be confused with sensible devotion (see aridity, spiritual). Envy, too, is not desire, but sadness about another's good. The sins against peace are discord in the heart, contentiousness in speech, and schism, strife, and rebellion in deed (2a2ae, 3742). Most of the sins against the external acts of charity are forms of injustice, but scandal in a special manner is a sin against the loving-kindness we should show to one another (2a2ae, 43); it does not mean shocking another, but providing the occasion for his spiritual ruin.

Precepts. There are two great commandments of charity, that we should love God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourself (2a2ae, 44). All other precepts are subordinate to these; Christian perfection consists mainly in their observance and not in the counsels (2a2ae, 184.3). Such is the law of love, but it is not an ordinance in the juridical sense, for it is not directed to the well-being of a group, but only to the happy intercommunication of persons in friendship [cf. T. Gilby, Between Community and Society (London and New York 1953) 194202].

Gifts. The classical theological teaching culminates in the consideration of the gift of the Holy Spirit called wisdom (2a2ae, 45). There the great mystical writers see how our knowledge shaped by love can rise to an experience of God that has gone beyond all concepts: "We speak a wisdom of God, mysterious, hidden which God foreordained before the world to our glory to us God has revealed them through his Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God The spiritual man judges all things, and he himself is judged by no man. For who has known the mind of the Lord that he might instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2.716). It is noteworthy that St. Thomas, revising a previous judgment that made of this gift a sort of gnosis, took it also into the practical business of intelligent living (45.3) and related it especially to the seventh beatitude (45.6), "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God" (Mt 5.9).

Bibliography: f. prat et al., Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 2:507691. c. spicq, Agape in the New Testament, tr. m. a. mcnamara and m. h. richter (St. Louis 1963). j. e. van roey, De virtute caritatis quaestiones selectae (Mechlin 1929). g. gilleman, The Primacy of Charity in Moral Theology, tr. w. f. ryan and a. vachon (Westminster, Md. 1959). b. hring, The Law of Christ, tr. e. g. kaiser (Westminster, Md. 1961).

[t. gilby]

Charitable Giving

views updated May 18 2018

Charitable Giving

Many small business owners engage in charitable giving, either as private individuals or in their corporate capacity. This charitable giving can take many forms, including sponsorship of local charitable events, donations of excess inventory, and sustained philanthropy in one or more areas through the establishment of a formal foundation or council. Whatever form the charitable giving takes, experts and entrepreneurs agree that such activity can have a beneficial impact on the company as well as the charities and institutions it supports.


Charitable giving by small businesses most often takes the form of contributions of goods and, less often, services. Indeed, many companies have made donations of obsolete, excess, erroneously packaged, or slow-moving inventory. The bottom-line advantages of such donations are considerable for small companies. "Not only can you get rid of that inventory and free up warehouse space, but you also can get a hefty tax deductionoften, more than your production costsand at the same time help a not-for-profit organization," wrote Marsha Bertrand in Nation's Business. Indeed, some companies that donate goods to charitable causes can reap tax deductions that equal the cost of producing those goods plus half the difference between that cost and the fair market value of those goods. The amount of the deduction for which companies are eligible will vary with their legal status. Partnerships, S corporations, and sole proprietorships will only be able to claim deductions amounting to the production cost of the donated goods. But for C corporations, the deduction can be two times the production cost.

Bertrand and others point out, however, that the donated goods will entitle businesses to a deduction only if they meet requirements laid out in the Internal Revenue Service's tax code. For instance, the donor business will qualify for a deduction only if it hands over its goods to a qualified non-profit organization. Moreover, products that are donated must be targeted at helping disadvantaged or otherwise legitimate groups, such as children, the needy, and people who are ill. Finally, donated goods must be handed over unconditionally; the donor business is not allowed to receive compensation in any form for its largess. Despite these restrictions, analysts and companies that have established charitable giving programs agree that making such donations can have a potent positive impact for the participating business.

In addition to the tax deduction and the reduced inventory-carrying costs, companies realize tremendous public relations benefits from corporate giving. According to the "Cone Corporate Citizenship Study" conducted by Boston-based Cone Inc., 8 in 10 Americans say corporate support of causes helps earn their loyalty to a business. C. J. Prince explains in an Entrepreneur article on the subject that to many entrepreneurs focused "on keeping costs down and milking every cash-flow dollar, corporate giving sounds like a luxury they just can't afford. But in today's competitive environment, corporate charitable programs and partnerships may be the cheapest strategic competitive edge you can getnot to mention the satisfaction they can bring."

Many businesses that choose to direct their excess inventory toward philanthropic targets have come to realize that there are a number of agencies that can help them in this task. In addition to non-profit organizations themselves, which typically try to make the donation process as easy as possible for donor companies, companies interested in handing over goods can enlist the help of organizations known as exchanges. These organizations serve as middlemen, accepting products from companies and then distributing them to various deserving charitable groups. "In addition to finding an outlet for your goods, exchanges supply you with the proper tax documentation, handle distribution, and ensure that the recipient qualifies under the tax code," stated Bertrand.


Business experts agree that charitable giving is an activity that, when considered by small family-owned businesses, is particularly rife with both opportunities and challenges. The chief pitfall of charitable giving by members of family businesses is lack of communication. All too often each member of a family involved in a business writes out checks to charities of his or her choosing. One may donate to the cancer society, another to the arts, and a third to yet a different worthy non-profit. When the donations are tallied up a lack of direction and consistency in support is often the result. Analysts encourage owners of family businesses to organize their charitable giving in a cohesive way that can benefit both deserving non-profit organizations and the business itself.

Organizing a Strategy for Philanthropic Giving

There is no one organized giving plan that all family-owned businesses should adhere to. Indeed, small and mid-sized family businesses utilize a broad range of charitable strategies, many of which are tremendously effective despite their differences in emphasis, direction, and execution. But most successful giving programs share a common characteristic that is also a hallmark of success in the business arena: proper research and planning. Family businesses seeking to establish a program of charitable giving need to recognize that such policies are predicated on three major issueschoice of charities, size of donations, and the vehicle that will be used to execute donations.

Choice of Charity or CharitiesSome family businesses choose to provide financial support only to causes that are personally important to family members, regardless of their influence on the business or industry in which the family is involved. Other families, meanwhile, may choose to steer their charitable giving toward areas that also impact on the family business. A publisher who supports literacy causes, for example, can publicize that connection and boost its public image. A paper manufacturer that supports environmental and deforestation causes may, likewise, create good will in the community.

Of course, many families will discover that agreeing on the primary recipients of a charitable giving program is no easy matter. Some family members may be enthusiastic supporters of a non-profit organization, only to find to their dismay that other members are lukewarm or even hostile to that organization's goals and mission. In such instances, consultants urge individuals not to adopt an intransigent position or engage in "tit-for-tat" negotiations in which approval of a charity is withheld until family members agree to provide financial support to a cause of which they may not be enamored. There are plenty of charities out there to which everyone should be able to agree to donate. In instances where disagreements break down along generational lines, another option is to create a three- to five-year plan in which the causes favored by one generation give way over time to those favored by the next generation.

Deciding How Much to Give

The size of charitable donations that family-owned businesses give is, of course, directly linked to the size and fortunes of the family business. A family-owned lumber business with several locations and a host of reliable corporate clients is obviously going to be able to make larger donations, if it is so inclined, than are the owners of a single sporting goods store. But no matter what the sum total of donations is, family members should make sure that they arrive at the total together and in an informed fashion. That is, organized giving totals should be arrived at with an eye toward the business's current financial standing and its future business plans and prospects. A company poised on the brink of a major expansion effort, for example, may adopt a more modest strategy of organized giving than would a mature business that requires less reinvestment.

Another consideration that members of family-owned businesses need to weigh is their allocation of time to charities. Certain individuals may be enthusiastic supporters of a charity, giving considerable amounts of time and talent to the organization in order to advance its work. Such selflessness is laudable, but it can also give rise to resentments among fellow family members if they begin to feel they are taking on an unfair share of the company's workload as a result. For this reason, family members should make sure that they communicate the needs of the business as well as the charity to one another through regular meetings. Of course, sometimes a business may find that extensive involvement in charitable work can also pay dividends for the company. A hands-on involvement in charitable work demonstrates a tangible commitment to the cause while also allowing for networking with others in the business community.

Choosing a Vehicle for Giving

Many a family-owned business has chosen to establish a philanthropic foundation to guide its charitable activities. This is especially true of families that own larger businesses that can afford to make donations of considerable size. If you intend to donate a very large sum, more than $250,000, there are advantages to setting up a foundation, which is a legal entity recognized under state law and by the IRS as a non-profit corporation. Such foundations are subject to complex rules. Nonetheless, contributions to the foundation are generally tax-deductible, whether they're made by family members or by non-family members who support the foundation's goals. Before committing to a foundation, however, small business owners should consider the various restrictions that apply (foundations are required by law to distribute a minimum of five percent of their net worth to charities every year, for example) and the legal and accounting fees associated with running it.

Another option that some small businesses pursue is the formation of a charitable council. Like individuals, the council can give tax-deductible donations to charities. However, councils are not recognized by or accountable to the IRS and as a result contributors do not receive a tax break on any direct contributions to the council's funds.


Bertrand, Marsha. "Donations for Deductions." Nation's Business. January 1996.

Kahan, Stuart. "Strategies of Charitable Giving." Accounting Technology. January 2000.

Prince, C. J. "Give and Receive: When done right, corporate charitable giving can boost company morale and exposureas well as your bottom line." Entrepreneur. November 2005.

Saxe, Douglas S. "Discussing Charitable Giving." Business First-Columbus. 22 September 2000.

Stockman, Farah. "For-Profit Businesses Market 'Experience' of Charitable Giving." Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News. 14 December 2000.

Wilkinson Troy, Carol. "Commentary: Breakdown of Charitable Giving in the U.S." Daily Record, Kansas City, MO. 6 January 2006.

                                 Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                                  updated by Magee, ECDI

Foundations, Charitable

views updated May 21 2018

Foundations, Charitable


Charitable foundations are endowments that are devoted to the pursuit of public purposes. Foundations are typically set up to exist, in principle, in perpetuityspending parts of their annual income on public purposes, while retaining the remainder to preserve and grow their endowment assets. On occasion, however, donors limit the life span of a charitable foundation, requiring the foundation to spend out all assets over a given number of years, as was the case with the Julian Rosenwald Fund (19171948) and more recently the Bradley Foundation, established in 1985. Foundations have existed in one form or another for many centuries, and some observers have pointed to the Library of Alexandria and Platos Academy (bequeathed with income-producing lands to his nephew) as early examples in antiquity. Historically, foundations were closely linked to religious charity in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but similar concepts are found in other religious traditions as well, such as the al-wakif in Islam.

In the course of the twentieth century, however, much foundation activity has been linked to the concept of philanthropy. Literally the love of humankind, philanthropy can be most poignantly defined as the use of resources to examine and address the causes of social ills or problems. As such, philanthropy contrasts with traditional charity, understood as the eleemosynary, ameliorative use of resources. Although many charitable trusts existed for various purposes in early American history, and the foundations of Benjamin Franklin (17061790), James Smithson (17651829), and George Peabody (17951869) were of great significance, the birth of the U.S. foundation sector, and with it the rise of the concept of philanthropy, is typically located around the beginning of the twentieth century.

In an influential series of articles published in the 1880s titled Wealth, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie (18351919) began to argue in favor of an obligation on the part of the rich to devote excess wealth to public purposes and to help provide opportunities for the less fortunate to better themselves. Over the following decades, the traditional focus of charitable trusts on providing relief and amelioration was gradually supplanted by a new orientation toward analyzing and addressing the causes of social problems rather than just addressing their effects. Using the emerging sciences to tackle the root causes of social ills set the ambitions and operations of the early twentieth-century foundations apart from earlier foundation activities in the United States and launched what historians Barry Karl and Stan Katz (1987) have termed the modern philanthropic foundation.

The earliest of these new foundations included the Russell Sage Foundation (1907), the Carnegie Corporation (1911), and the Rockefeller Foundation (1913), which popularized the foundation idea and provided a blueprint that other wealthy donors began to follow in the 1920s and 1930s. High marginal tax rates that originated during World War II (19391945) and continued into the postwar period, in combination with lax regulation, further propelled foundation growth in the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, however, perceived economic misuses of foundations led to a political backlash culminating in the introduction of the new and relatively stringent regulation of foundations through the Tax Reform Act of 1969. This law instituted, among other provisions, a payout requirement for grant-making foundations that currently requires the annual payout in grants and other qualifying contributions to be the equivalent of 5 percent of the foundations asset value. As such, the sum of foundation grants is closely tied to endowment value, and the run-up of the stock market in the 1990sas well as the emergence of large-scale postindustrial philanthropists such as William Hewlett, David Packard, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, George Soros, and Warren Buffettsignificantly increased the level of resources at the disposal of the foundation community at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

According to data provided by the New Yorkbased Foundation Center, there were close to 68,000 grant-making foundations in the United States in 2005, holding aggregate total assets of close to $510 billion and spending $33.6 billion in grant and other expenditures. While the number of foundations had only doubled since the late 1980s (there were about 30,000 foundations in 1988), there was a dramatic acceleration of the financial means of the foundation sector in the space of only a few years. More specifically, total assets in nominal terms more than doubled between 1995 ($227 billion) and 2005, and grant dollars almost tripled between 1995 ($12.3 billion) and 2005. Despite this growth, funding patterns have remained stable: Education receives about 25 percent of all foundation support, followed by health with about 20 percent and human services with 15 percent. The other major funding areas are arts and culture and public affairs, with slightly more than 10 percent. The remainder is distributed between environmental causes, science, religion, and international affairs.

Although not insignificant, foundation resources remain overall rather limited. For example, the roughly $8 billion in annual educational spending by foundations equals no more than four times the 2005 operating budget of Harvard University or any large urban school district. As such, foundations are seldom the most appropriate vehicle to provide basic financing of educational ventures or scientific institutions or to serve as guarantors of sustainability over the long run. Rather, foundations have traditionally sought a different function. Faced with a scarcity of resources on the one hand, and flexibility and freedom from external constraints on the other, foundations are usually at their best when pursuing the development of new ideas and concepts. During the twentieth century, foundations had their greatest impact in fostering innovation and pioneering novel approaches and then moving on to different areas once the innovations took root.

This pioneering function of foundations is well reflected in the development of the social sciences in the twentieth century. The Russell Sage Foundation, founded in 1907 as the first of the great modern philanthropies with the mission to pursue the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States, adopted early on a focus on a scientific understanding of the causes of poverty. This led to the development of the social work profession, and eventually turned the foundation into the mainstay of social science inquiry that it remains today. Similar to the Russell Sage Foundation, but with more of an economics focus, was the Twentieth Century Fund (now the Century Foundation) founded in 1919.

Other foundations focused on improving education, including the Julius Rosenwald Fund in the American South, but the larger foundations, particularly the Rockefeller and Carnegie philanthropies, soon devoted growing shares of their resources toward the development of the social sciences. These foundations were instrumental in helping to establish new independent institutions that would shape social science discourse for decades, including the National Bureau of Economic Research (1920), the Social Science Research Council (1923), and the Brookings Institution (1927). Beyond building an institutional infrastructure, foundations also sponsored a range of important research studies, such as Gunnar Myrdals (18981987) seminal work on race in the 1940s, that gave prominence and helped validate emerging disciplines. All this work became crucial in consolidating the role of social science in the academy. After the Ford Foundation came to national prominence in 1949, fostering the social sciences was among its main programmatic objectives. Ford heavily supported social science development in European universities in the aftermath of World War II, and is widely credited with introducing area studies in the United States. Although federal funding has come to overshadow private foundation support for research, foundations have long shaped the development of the social sciences and remain important supporters of innovative work.

SEE ALSO Philanthropy


Anheier, Helmut K., and Stefan Toepler, eds. 1999. Private Funds, Public Purpose: Philanthropic Foundations in International Perspective. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Dowie, Mark. 2001. American Foundations: An Investigative History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Foundation Center. 2006. Foundation Yearbook: Facts and Figures on Private and Community Foundations. New York: Author.

Karl, Barry, and Stan Katz. 1987. Foundations and Ruling Class Elites. Daedalus 116: 140.

Lagemann, Ellen, ed. 1999. Philanthropic Foundations: New Scholarship, New Possibilities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nielsen, Waldemar. 1972. The Big Foundations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Prewitt, Kenneth, Mattei Doggone, Steven Heydemann, and Stefan Toepler. 2006. The Legitimacy of Philanthropic Foundations: United States and European Perspectives. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Weaver, Warren, ed. 1967. U.S. Philanthropic Foundations: Their History, Structure, Management, and Record. New York: Harper.

Stefan Toepler


views updated May 29 2018


What It Means

A charity is an organization that is established with the sole purpose of providing help or relief to people in need. A charity may be an institution, such as a hospital, that provides care for the sick or injured free of charge. It can also be a fund that provides financial resources for those who need them or an organization that provides such things as shelter, clothing, or education.

Charities have roots in ancient cultures, and they have always been focused on addressing the needs of the poor. In many countries charities are the primary organizations helping the poor survive and thus allowing the societies in which they exist to sustain themselves and move forward. Societies with well-respected and active charities are regarded by some as the healthiest societies.

In most countries charities are supervised by the federal government. Whether they are public or private, charities must register with the government and report on their financial and operational activities on a regular basis. Charities rely primarily on donations from private citizens and organizations for their funding and resources. Donations are typically made in the form of cash, but donors can also give real estate, clothing, computers or other electronic equipment, motor vehicles, or securities, such as stocks or bonds (stocks are shares of ownership in a company, and bonds are shares of governmental and other types of debt; both can earn profits or interest). Usually when individuals or corporations make a donation, they may then deduct a certain amount from their income taxes related to the value of the donation.

When Did It Begin

The belief that charity is a virtue has its roots in ancient times and is associated with religious traditions around the world. In Islam, for example, aid to the poor is not only encouraged but is seen as a duty, traditionally requiring Muslims to give away 2.5 percent of their total wealth each year. The Torah, a Jewish holy book, commands Jews to give to the poor every year as well; charity, repentance, and prayer are believed to overcome evil edicts, bring redemption, and save those who practice them from a meaningless death. Christians received their understanding about the importance of giving to the poor from the Bible’s New Testament, which names the three great virtues as faith, hope, and charity. It is considered a Christian duty for the rich to help the poor in the form of alms-giving (any voluntary contribution to aid the poor). Over time these various religious beliefs have been combined with the idea that philanthropic activity on the part of the wealthier classes made a difference in the lives of the poor.

The earliest institutional charities started forming centuries ago. The Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester, England, formed in 1136, is the oldest charitable institution in Britain. Known as an almshouse, it continues to care for old people and even provides what is known as the “Wayfarer’s Dole” (traditionally bread and ale) to passing travelers. Until the nineteenth century charities were typically established by rich merchants or other wealthy people who left a portion of their wealth in their will to create a charitable fund or institution.

Until the mid-1900s charities carried the bulk of the responsibility of caring for hundreds of thousands of poor people in the United States. After the war the government created welfare policies, and many of the obligations that formerly fell to charities were absorbed by the state.

More Detailed Information

Over the centuries the mission of charitable institutions has evolved along with the needs of societies. Today, charities focus on wide array of different needs, from hunger relief to veterinary care to disease eradication.

Charities are nonprofit organizations. This means that their primary objective is to support an issue of private interest or public concern for noncommercial purposes. In many countries nonprofits may apply to the federal government for tax-exempt status. If they receive this status, they do not have to pay taxes on income or other activities. In some cases exempt status also means that financial donors can deduct the amount of their charitable donation from the taxes they owe to state and federal governments.

Charities are sometimes referred to as foundations. A foundation is a type of humanitarian or charitable organization set up by individuals or institutions as a legal entity (a corporation or trust). Foundations support causes in keeping with their goals by distributing sums of money, called grants, to these causes. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is a philanthropic organization that has a strong focus on world health, so it funds projects that address disease and education, such as immunizing children in developing countries and running mobile boat libraries in Bangladesh.

Charitable donations are not just given in the form of cash or other assets. Individuals may also contribute to charities in their final financial arrangements, known as wills or final bequests. Donors giving to charity in this way are called grantors. One way a grantor can contribute to a charity is by establishing a charitable lead trust. This is an arrangement in which income (for instance, rental or interest income) from property or investments is given to a charity while the grantor is living; at the grantor’s death the ownership of the property or investment passes to the grantor’s heirs (those specified in the will to inherit), and the charity no longer benefits.

A grantor may also establish a charitable remainder trust. This is an arrangement in which assets (property or money) are put into a trust (a property interest held by one person for the benefit of another) in the name of a charity, but the grantor continues to use the property or receive income from it until he or she dies (or sometimes until the grantor and the grantor’s spouse both die). After that point the charity receives the total income from the property as well. Charitable remainder trusts are attractive to many wealthy grantors because they can avoid some of the income taxes on the donated assets during their lifetime. Also, the grantor may reduce the taxes on his or her estate (the assets left at death) since, once donated, the asset is removed from the estate.

Recent Trends

Within Christianity two trends have grown out of the broad concept of charity as the church first promoted it many centuries ago. One, the Catholic Church has encouraged members to donate alms, or to act charitably, as a way for individuals to find spiritual redemption. Many organizations serving local, state, and national communities act under the auspices of the Catholic Church. In contrast, Protestants developed the belief that individuals find justification by faith alone, and that where faith exists, charity will also exist. Protestant churches are less involved in organizing and operating charities than Catholic churches.

In the early part of the twentieth century, many large charitable organizations were established in the United States. The emphasis on compassion was replaced by an emphasis on effectiveness. For example, in 1919 a program called the Cleveland Community Chest was established that used business practices to raise money for the poor. This effort supported the idea of charity as a community responsibility, not simply an obligation of the wealthy. It became part of the United Way, today one of the nation’s largest charities.

Charitable Trust

views updated May 17 2018


The arrangement by which real orpersonal propertygiven by one person is held by another to be used for the benefit of a class of persons or the general public.

The law favors charitable trusts, sometimes called public trusts, by according them certain privileges, such as an advantageous tax status. Before a court will enforce a charitable trust, however, it must examine the charity and evaluate its social benefits. The court cannot rely on the view of the settlor, the one who establishes the trust, that the trust is charitable.

In order to be valid, a charitable trust must fulfill certain requirements. The settlor must intend to create this type of trust. There must be a trustee to administer the trust, which must consist of some res or trust property. The charitable purpose must be expressly designated. A definite class of persons comprised of indefinite beneficiaries within it must actually receive the benefit. The requirements of intention, the trustee, and the res are the same in a charitable trust as they are in any other trust.

Charitable Purposes

A charitable purpose is one designed to benefit, ameliorate, or uplift mankind mentally, morally, or physically. The relief of poverty, the improvement of government, and the advancement of religion, education, and health are some examples of charitable purposes. Trusts to prevent cruelty to animals, to erect a monument in honor of a famous historical figure, and to beautify a designated village are charitable purposes aimed, respectively, at fostering kindness to animals, patriotism, and community well-being.

The definition of charitable purposes is derived from an old english law, the Statute of Charitable Uses, but has been expanded throughout the years as new public needs developed.


The class to be benefited in a charitable trust must be a definite segment of the public. It must be large enough so that the community in general is affected by, and interested in, the enforcement of the trust, yet it cannot encompass the entire human race. Within the class, however, the specific persons to benefit from the trust must be indefinite. A trust "for the benefit of the orphans of American veterans of the Vietnam conflict" is charitable. The orphans of such veterans constitute a definite class. The indefinite persons within the class are the ones who are ultimately chosen by the trustee to be paid the benefits. The class is large enough so that the community is interested in the enforcement of the trust.

A trust for named persons or a trust for profit cannot be a charitable trust. A trust "to construct and maintain a hospital" might be charitable, even though the hospital charges the patients who are treated, provided that any profits realized are used solely to continue the charitable services rendered and are not paid to private persons.

A trust that serves both charitable and non-charitable purposes will fail if the two are inseparable. For example, suppose a settlor bequeaths $500,000 to a trustee "to hold in trust for the benefit of all the schools in a particular town." The settlor's daughter is the residuary legatee of the estate, who will inherit the remainder of the estate after the testamentary dispositions are satisfied. Some of the schools in the town are public and charitable institutions and some are private and operated for profit. The settlor has not apportioned the $500,000 between the public schools and the private schools. The valid part—to be given to public schools and charitable institutions—cannot be separated from the invalid part—the disposition to private or profit making institutions; therefore, the trust fails as a charitable trust. The trustee holds the $500,000 in a resulting trust for the settlor's daughter, since the settlor's disposition cannot be valid as a charitable trust because there is no indefinite beneficiary.

If a trust has both charitable and noncharitable purposes and if the maximum amount to be used for noncharitable purposes can be determined, the trust fails only with respect to that amount pertaining to noncharitable purposes, which will be held in a resulting trust by the trustee for the settlor's statutory heir or residuary legatee. The remainder is a valid charitable trust.

As a general rule, a charitable trust can be eternal, unlike a private trust, which must comply with the rule against perpetuities, a principle limiting the duration of a trust. With respect to a private trust, the designated beneficiary is the proper person to enforce the trust, but in a charitable trust, the state attorney general is the one to enforce it. The settlor, his or her heirs or personal representatives, the members of the general public, and possible beneficiaries cannot maintain a lawsuit for the enforcement of the trust.

Charitable trusts yield substantial tax benefits to donors, whether in the form of income tax deductions, tax shelters, or reduced inheritance taxes. Typically under charitable remainder trusts, immediate income tax deductions can also be matched with avoidance of capital gains taxes if the donor funds the trust using certain types of assets. The charitable lead trust, which is often used in estate planning, commonly benefits heirs. After its duration, the principal assets return to the donor's heirs subject to reduced gift and estate tax.

further readings

Parks, Charles T., Jr. 2003. "The Charitable Lead Trust: Why It Works Even in a Down Market." Faegre & Benson LLP. Available online at <> (accessed June 17, 2003).

Teitell, Conrad. 2001. "Tax Primer on Charitable Giving." Trusts & Estates (June 1).


Charities; Estate and Gift Taxes; Heir; Taxation.


views updated May 11 2018


Prior to the Great Depression, private charity played a critical, if supplemental, role in the nation's patchwork relief system. Although public and private charities grew considerably between 1910 and 1929, private charity constituted barely one quarter of all aid in 1929. But because private agencies administered most relief funds, their values shaped virtually all public programs that emerged before and during the 1930s.

Between 1929 and 1931 most politicians and professionals believed that the expansion of private charity would help the nation overcome its devastating economic problems. Through emergency appeals, private charity quadrupled to $170 million in two years—34 percent of all relief funds. As its primary funders, the community chests remained strong proponents of private charity, as did the Herbert Hoover administration, which extolled its virtues despite clear evidence that private charities lacked adequate resources to cope with rising unemployment.

The economic crisis quickly exhausted even the best efforts of private charities. For example, the number of families on relief in Detroit increased from four thousand to forty-five thousand between October 1930 and January 1931. In Cleveland, nearly ten times as many families received charity in mid-1932 than had received it in 1929.

In 1930, the community chests raised $84.8 million in 386 cities. This was only an $8 million increase over the 1929 total and it had to be distributed among 33 more cities. Even a model city such as Philadelphia, which was spending about $1 million each month on private charity, could not cope with the increasing need. Funds were stretched so thin that 57,000 families received between $1.50 and $2 per person per week, plus a little coal, some food, and used clothing. By November 1931, Philadelphia had exhausted its charitable funds.

Although private charities feared that an expanded public welfare system would hurt their ability to raise funds, by late 1931 they recognized that existing networks of relief could not adequately respond to increased demands for assistance, especially in major cities. Conflicts emerged, however, between city officials, who faced growing pressure to act, and business leaders, who argued that such actions would stifle economic recovery.

Private charities also could not raise new resources because their primary donors—working and middle-class people—lacked the income to contribute. By late 1931 their national organizations reluctantly conceded that federal intervention was imperative. The 1932 Republican platform, however, affirmed the party's position that relief was primarily a private responsibility.

As relief programs expanded during the Depression, traditional distinctions between the "worthy" and "unworthy" poor persisted. In New York, private charities classified the newly unemployed separately and assigned their cases to unpaid junior staff. Throughout the 1930s, racial discrimination continued to create barriers for the receipt of charity among African Americans, although they were twice as likely as whites to be certified as eligible.

The policies of the Franklin Roosevelt administration continued such practices even as they dramatically expanded public relief. In January 1935 Roosevelt spoke of the differences between the "productive" and "unproductive" poor, and, at the height of the New Deal, the government continued to assume that private charity was best suited to address the needs of the "old poor." Public relief programs maintained a central feature of private charities—their emphasis on investigation, which persisted long after the Depression.



Axinn, June, and Mark Stern. Social Welfare: A History of the American Response to Need, 5th edition. 2001.

Katz, Michael B. The Price of Citizenship: Redefining theAmerican Welfare State. 2001.

Margolin, Leslie. Under the Cover of Kindness: The Invention of Social Work. 1997.

Patterson, James. America's Struggle against Poverty in theTwentieth Century. 2000.

Watkins, T. H. The Great Depression: America in the 1930s. 1993.

Wenocur, Stanley, and Michael Reisch. From Charity toEnterprise: The Development of American Social Work in a Market Economy. 1989.

Michael Reisch


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Organizations created for the purpose of philanthropic rather than pecuniary pursuits.

A charity is a group designed to benefit society or a specific group of people. Its purpose may be educational, humanitarian, or religious. A charity goes beyond giving relief to the indigent, extending to the promotion of happiness and the support of many worthy causes.

The law favors charities because they promote goodwill and lessen the government's burdens. They are therefore ordinarily exempt from paying income or property taxes.

Charitable Gifts and Trusts

A charitable gift is something that is donated by an individual or organization with the intent to benefit the public or some segment of it as a whole. It is meant for use by an indefinite number of people. Similarly, charitable trusts or public trusts are trusts of religious, political, or general social interests, or for the relief of poverty or the advancement of education.

Charities are ordinarily supported by gifts from donors and most states have set forth statutes controlling the manner in which funds are solicited for charities. In addition, the state will generally require charities to disclose their financial structure and condition.

Charitable gifts are often testamentary, or created by will. If there is a problem in determining the actual donative intent of the testator, the court might have to pass on his or her intent.

cy pres is a doctrine applied by a court so that

it can carry out a trust made by will for charitable purposes even when the testator's charitable purpose can not be accomplished in the precise manner specified by the testator. For example, if a testator wished to donate money to a certain hospital whose name had changed, for example, this would not defeat the gift. With cy-pres the court would interpret the donor's intent to be to give money to the hospital in spite of the change of name.

Charitable Societies and Institutions

To determine whether an institution is charitable, the test is whether its major purpose is to aid others or to make a profit.

Charitable corporations are nonprofit corporations that have been created to minister to the physical needs of the indigent or to advance a particular goal, such as the aid of a particular religious group or country. In order to receive a tax-exempt status, such organizations must meet certain criteria.

Ordinarily, charitable corporations have no capital stock and they obtain their funds primarily from private and public charity. These funds are held in trust to serve the charitable objects of the institutions.

Beneficial associations also exist mainly for a charitable purpose and not for financial gain.

Religious organizations, such as the Young Men's and Women's Christian Associations and the Salvation Army, are also considered to be charitable societies.

The test for determining whether or not an educational institution is a charitable organization is the question of whether it exists for a public purpose or for a private gain.

While charities may charge a nominal fee for some of their services and still be considered charitable societies, they are organized primarily for the public good and not for profit.

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