By Rabbi Daniel Levy, December 30, 2008

“I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold to Egypt” Genesis 45:4

Over recent months, I have been amazed to hear of people admitting to vanished wealth. “I have lost £250,000/ half a million/ millions of pounds,” are all too common phrases. Yet six months ago, had these same people been canvassed for a donation, they would have given a few pounds and said they could afford no more.

There is an interesting, and not so well-known law concerning tzedakah, which states that the fabulously wealthy must give away more than 20 per cent of their earnings. For most people, halachah considers 10 per cent standard, while 20 per cent is considered a more befitting way to fulfil the mitzvah. However, the very rich must aim higher still (Rambam, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:5).

Often people on relatively modest incomes make the excuse that they cannot afford to give tzedakah, yet they are able to go abroad twice a year, eat out regularly, buy designer clothes and frequently change their car.

The Chafetz Chaim (1838-1933) gives six sets of circumstances when even a person who isn’t fabulously wealthy may be required to give more than 20 per cent of their earnings to tzedakah, including someone who spends liberally on themselves. Clearly such a person does have surplus funds beyond 10 or 20 per cent and, as such, must increase their charitable giving accordingly.

When Joseph finally revealed his true identity to his brothers, they were aghast to find he was still alive, yet on reflection relieved to be able to put events into a fresh perspective. Often something happens in our own lives which may not make sense at first but becomes clearer once we have had the chance to re-evaluate it. The credit crunch has ironically revealed to people what their true worth was six months ago.

Now that times are tough, we must still ensure to give responsibly but when, God willing, the economy improves, remember then to be more generous with our donations.

Last updated: 3:50pm, December 31 2008