What happens if a charity organization to which you donated money turns out to be fake? Does it still count as charity? How can one ever be sure that the money goes to the right cause?


Dear N___:

Until the times of Moshiach, there are going to be immoral people who will even play on people’s charitable conscience to their own advantage. Scam charities were around in ancient times too. Here is an incident related in the Talmud (Ketubot 67b):

Rabbi Chanina would regularly send four zuz (a Talmudic-era currency unit) to a certain man on the eve of the Sabbath. One day he sent that sum through his wife, who came back and told him that the man was in no need of it. “What did you see?” asked Rabbi Chanina.

“I heard that he was asked, ‘On what will you dine: on the silver-colored cloths, or on the gold ones?’” the rabbi’s wife replied.

“It is in view of such cases,” Rabbi Chanina remarked, “that the sages said, ‘Come, let us be grateful to the fraudulent! For were it not for them, we would be sinning every day . . . for anyone who shuts his eye to charity is like one who worships idols.’”

What did Rabbi Chanina mean by this? Quite simple: Theoretically, we should be obligated to give to everyone all of their requests. If we do not give, it is like idolatry. Deceitful people save us from this odious crime of idolatry by providing us an excuse for not giving in every instance: we can always say that we wanted to give, but didn’t since it may have been a scam.

Not every case, however, can be judged by outward appearances. The same passage in the Talmud tells of one of the sages who would send charity to a particular individual. One day he sent his son to deliver the money. The boy came home and said, “They are not needy; I saw them drinking expensive wines.”

The father doubled the sum and told his son, “On the contrary, they obviously were once people with high standards of living, and now have no money at all. For them to live the basic lifestyle which charity would provide is still painfully lacking.”

The mitzvah is to provide to each according to his needs, and sometimes what may seem unworthy to us may actually be a mitzvah too.

Furthermore, even if the person you gave to was not at all needy—and so, you haven’t really performed an act of charity—nevertheless, your act was still a charitable act. Charity has two aspects; the giver’s sacrifice of self for the sake of a mitzvah, and the receiver actually benefiting from the charity. Even when the actual provision for the needy is not there, you have still made your sacrifice by giving.

All said and done, that sacrifice would have been better off in a real act of charity, given to someone who really needed it. Your mitzvah, in effect, was stolen from you. According to the Talmud,1 Jeremiah the prophet prayed that should the wicked give charity, it will go to an uniftting cause—so that they will not receive reward. Perhaps, then, we should thoroughly investigate the neediness of anyone who asks?

It depends: If you are giving to a fund that dispenses to others, the Torah encourages us to investigate and determine whether the administrators of the fund are reliable people.2 The same is true if an individual approaches you and asks you for a handout: it is your right to investigate whether he is truly impoverished. If, however, someone personally requests food, we are to give unquestioningly, and trust that G‑d will see to it that our charity should reach a worthy cause. This is so even if the one asking is totally unfamiliar to us. If the one asking is someone we know, then a request for clothing, too, should be treated unquestioningly.

If you gave and didn’t scrutinize to judge if the one requesting was truly deserving, don’t take it to heart; you’re in good company. G‑d continues to provide us with all our needs, and we hope He doesn’t judge us based on a close-up scrutiny either.

Best wishes,
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson

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Talmud, Bava Batra 9b; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:6; Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 349:7.