Everyone is obligated to give charity, but how much are we obligated to give? That is based on the individual’s generosity and wealth, but as a guide Maimonides writes:

The most desirable is to give one fifth of one's resources. Giving one tenth is average; giving less [than that] is miserly. 1

What happens in a situation where a person has income but is in a physical or mental state that renders him unable to fulfill his charitable obligations? Is he exempt from being charitable, or must others contribute from his resources on his behalf? This is where things start to get confusing.

When writing about the role and responsibility of a guardian for orphans who are still children, Maimonides rules:

The guardians arrange a lulav, a sukkah, tzitzit, a shofar, a Torah scroll, tefillin, mezuzot and a megillah for the orphans. The principle is: All mitzvot that have a fixed measure - whether of Scriptural or Rabbinic origin - should be facilitated for them, although they are still minors and thus only obligated in these mitzvot for educational purposes. We do not, however, levy charitable contributions, even for the sake of the [uniquely important] redemption of captives, as such mitzvot have no limit.

So, it would seem from this that the answer is no. Since the orphan is still a minor and is incapable of managing his or her own affairs, he or she is not obligated to give charity – and therefore the guardian shall not allocate charitable funds from the orphan’s resources. In the very next paragraph, however, Maimonides addresses a different case of a person who is unable to take care of their own needs. In this instance, he rules:

When a person loses his intellectual faculties or becomes a deaf-mute, the court levies charitable assessments against his property if he has the means.

Why in the case of an orphan do we exempt his property from charitable obligations, whereas a person who has lost their intellectual capabilities is still required to give? If the issue with charitable donations is that they are not fixed, why doesn’t that reasoning apply to someone who is physically or mentally incapacitated?

In fact, the whole reasoning that charity is something that is not fixed is highly problematic. The logic behind the reasoning is that there is a never-ending need to help the poor, and thus if we would impose an obligation on the orphan to sustain the poor he would quickly lose all his possessions.2 But if we were to follow that logic, we should exempt every person from charity!

Of course, the reason we don’t worry that the obligation to give charity would be financially ruinous is because, as noted earlier, there is a limit — one may only give up to one fifth of their resources. That is why the guardian of a disabled person can allocate his possessions to charity without worrying that it will lead to financial ruin. If so, why could we not apply the same limit to the property of the orphan, and thus collect charity from them as well?

The Rebbe shows that our questions are based on a fundamental misconception about the nature of the obligations on the orphans. Maimonides wrote that the guardian facilitates mitzvah observance for the children “although they are still minors and thus only obligated in these mitzvot for educational purposes.”

This changes matters completely. The orphans are underage, and therefore have no obligations for any mitzvot. It is the community – represented by the courts – that are instructed to appoint a guardian to educate the orphans to prepare them for when they will reach maturity. This means that whatever commandments the guardian helps the child orphan fulfill is purely educational. This is very different from an adult.

Well, if the aim is to educate the orphan, we may indeed ask whether it would be educationally appropriate to involve the orphan in charitable allocations. Children are generally not well equipped to understand economics and financial management. It would not be feasible to educate a child about charitable allocations, since the need for charity is unlimited. What is fluid is not the amount of charity one is obligated to give, but the need for charitable giving that never ends.

While it is appropriate to give a child a coin to put in a charity box, so as to become accustomed to being charitable, it is more challenging to help a child structure their finances. A small child may not have the capacity to understand why we set a seemingly arbitrary limit to the amount of charity given (say, a tenth or a fifth), even though there are still poor people in need of help. The child will not understand how on the one hand we are obligated to help the poor, yet on the other hand we stop helping them even though there are still more resources available.

The first obligation of the guardian is to the best interest of the child, and he is not likely to benefit from attempts to educate him about how to allocate his resources at such a young age. Have the child give a coin to charity every day, but wait until they are bar or bat mitzvah before expecting them to understand financial planning.

These regulations about the role of the guardian apply equally in regards to education in general. The education system should be designed around the needs of the children, not to suit the aspirations of the adults.

Education must be tailored to the intellectual capacities of the child.3 Exposing the child to issues that are likely to overwhelm them is not educationally sound. It is best to wait until the child is older and is ready to understand more nuanced ideas.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 38, Parshat Pinchas II.