It’s a scene everyone knows all too well. You’re at a stop light and out of the corner of your eye you spot a person holding a handmade cardboard sign. Maybe they’re limping, or have improper clothing for the weather. The sign reads some configuration of “hungry,” “vet,” “homeless,” “children in need” and other heart-wrenching descriptors. They’re asking for money, or food, or both. What should you do?
Judaism has a wealth of teachings on tzedakah, says Rabbi Paul Schneider, a member of the rabbinic staff at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. “It’s clear that tradition feels it’s our obligation to give tzedekah,” he said. “In general, it’s 10 percent [of your income].”
Jewish law is less clear, however, on giving specifically to individuals asking for money. “[Judaism] doesn’t tell you to give to organizations or to individuals,” Schneider said.
But the heart of the matter is, if one who doesn’t give charity is, as Rabbi Joshua Ben Korkha said, “like one who worships idols” then how can we as Jewish people turn a blind eye to people in need asking for money? At the same time, as Schneider points out, if you live in a big city, you may encounter dozens of people each day who are asking for money and it seems difficult if not impossible to give to every single one of them.
Another concern regarding giving charity is that some people asking for money may not really be in need, or may be using that money to purchase drugs or alcohol.
“The best thing to do, if someone says they’re hungry, is to provide them with food or provide them with a meal,” Schneider said. “You don’t know when you give them money, whether the money is going to be used for food or not.”
Rabbi Chayim Halberstam of Sanz, who wrote the Divrei Chaim, a book on Jewish halakha, was a famous rabbi who founded the Sanz Hasidic dynasty. Halberstam looked at a different angle of the dilemma and said, “The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.” (Darkei Chayim  p. 137).
Whether you choose to give money or food, the question of what to do when you don’t have something to give remains. Schneider tells the story of “the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy [who] passed a beggar. Reaching into his pocket to give the beggar money, he found that his pocket was empty. Looking at the poor man, Tolstoy said, ‘I’m sorry my brother, I have nothing to give.’ To his surprise, the beggar brightened and he said, ‘you gave me more than I asked for; you called me brother.’”
This story, Schneider explained, emphasizes the humanity in each and every person asking for money.
“If you’re not able to help out, don’t turn away from the person. You can still make eye contact…you can still say ‘I’m sorry I’m not able to help you today but I wish you well,’ as opposed to pretending that person doesn’t exist.”
Another question, Schneider said, is what to do when you have young children with you.
“I think it’s particularly important because you’re supposed to teach your children through your actions,” Schneider said. “I think it’s an important opportunity to teach.”