Deciding charity priorities
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How should we decide to whom to give charity? The Shulchan Aruch , based on biblical and talmudic sources, states that poor relatives come first, next neighbours, then people in the same city, and then the poor in Israel (Yoreh Deah 251:3). With the mitzvah of giving tzedakah, the halachah is that we should prioritise those near to us.
The obvious question is, what does “first” mean? Do you have to give everything to those closest to you? Most authorities say no and recommend giving between half and threequarters of your charity to those in the nearest concentric circles. The idea of “the poor of your city come first” is to nurture compassion through caring for the people in your life first and then moving outwards to the world beyond. We intuitively feel the hollowness of “telescopic philanthropy”, where empathy for the far-flung poor co-exists with callousness to those close by.