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Ma'alot tsedaqah and ordine caritatis: orders of charitable priority in Maimonides and Aquinas.


Since scarcity is a fundamental fact of life, giving inescapably means choosing. Thus, each charitable gift consists of both an actual event (someone receives) and the negation of a potential event (someone else does not). How different donors choose between potential recipients depends on countless factors, from personal inclination to random chance, and from clever marketing to convenient location. The committed religionist, however, and the student of theology must ask what guidance religious tradition provides for setting an order of priority among possible charitable choices.

Both the Jewish and the Christian religions brought forth authoritative formulations of just such guidance in the High Middle Ages, from two towering scholars of religious law and philosophy: Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Both of these authorities are remembered for multiple prolific works of religious scholarship that presented elements of received traditions in innovative, systematic forms. Likewise, both men profoundly influenced the development of their respective religions' theological and canonical frameworks.

How does Aquinas's order of charity as expressed in Summa Theologiae, rooted in the Christian concept of caritas, compare with the principles of charitable order that Maimonides laid out in his Mishneh Torah, which are rooted in the Jewish concept of tsedaqah? In this essay I will explore and compare these medieval formulations of order in charity, treating them as a lens through which to examine and compare the nature of charity in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Prior comparisons of Maimonides and Aquinas have focused overwhelmingly on lofty philosophical subjects--the harmonization of Aristotelian and biblical concepts, fine points of scriptural exegesis, and questions of abstract theology such as the nature of God, Divine names in the Bible, metaphor in the Prophets, free will, and theodicy. (1) This analysis will shift its focus "downward," as it were, concentrating not on heavenly matters of the nature of God but, rather, on a practical, earthbound, concern: the question of how Jewish and Christian believers should prioritize their limited charitable budgets.

The Possibility of Comparison

Can Jewish and Christian charity be compared meaningfully? It would seem not; many Jewish and Christian sources indicate that Christian caritas and Jewish tsedaqah differ sharply enough and fundamentally enough that they are simply incomparable. That this ineluctable difference exists, however, is the beginning and the end of Jewish-Christian agreement on the subject; when discussing the precise nature of the difference between tsedaqah and caritas, Jewish and Christian explanations rapidly diverge. The Jewish Encyclopedia, for example, explains that "Charity may be regarded merely as a free tribute of love, as in the New Testament, where [agape] is often translated [as] 'charity' ... But in Judaism charity is an act of duty." (2) From the other side, the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
      The charitable achievements of the non-Christian religions have
   exhibited all the limitations of their defective first principles.
   Among the Greeks and the Romans the human person had no inherent

      Hebrew charity was of a much higher order, being motivated by
   obedience to God and genuine pity for the unfortunate....
   Nevertheless, Jewish charity was essentially national for it took
   no account of the alien dwelling without.... In the later centuries
   of their existence as a nation, the Chosen People departed to a
   great extent from both the letter and the spirit of their excellent
   legislation on behalf of the poor....

      ... [Christian charity's] general superiority over that of
   Paganism, Judaism, and Mohammedanism ... cannot be more effectively
   uttered than in the following sentence ... of Lecky: "Christianity
   for the first time made charity a rudimentary virtue." (3)

Each religion's prevalent understanding simplifies and caricatures the other's concept of charity, apparently in the service of triumphalism. Christian charity, the Jewish Encyclopedia implies, is "merely" a voluntary gift of love, presumably inferior for its failure to obligate by force of law, as does Judaism. (In fact, Thomas Aquinas would have been shocked to hear the notion that charitable giving is not just as much "an act of duty" for the Christian believer; he insisted that caritas in general was the highest of all virtues (4) and that giving alms to the needy in particular was explicitly commanded by God.) (5) Jewish charity, to the Catholic Encyclopedia, suffers from parochialism, as it "took no account of the alien without," and even insofar as it is "excellent" in the abstract, it has been poorly and insufficiently implemented in Jewish practice. One wonders if the Catholic Encyclopedia means to imply that Christian charity, by contrast, has always found perfect expression in the actions of all Christian people. The charge of neglecting "the alien without" is odd in light of the traditional Jewish policy (mandated in both Tosefta (6) and Talmud) (7) of maintaining communal charitable support systems for the Jewish poor, which were also open to the gentile needy. This policy applied to every Jewish community, including in the Diaspora. (Note also the use of the past tense. "Hebrew charity was...." and "Jewish charity was ..."; not only was Jewish charity deficient, it seems, but it also apparently ceased to be.)

This prejudicial species of ersatz comparison, in which each conception of charity encounters only a "straw person" facsimile of the other, will indeed fail to produce a useful analysis. A more balanced consideration, however--a genuine inquiry in which tsedaqah encounters caritas, each on its own terms, and each expressed in the robust nuance of its most celebrated formulations--will prove as fruitful as the partisan juxtapositions are hollow. Differences between the two concepts will emerge (as will similarities), but the analysis will eschew judgments of relative value, seeking instead to clarify the uniqueness of each conception of charity by examining it in the light of the other.

Such an undertaking requires far more depth and breadth than space will afford the present exploration. Let this analysis of the order of priorities in charity as represented in Maimonides and Aquinas serve, then, as merely a small beginning of what ought to become a much larger effort to study comparatively the Jewish and Christian conceptions of charity.

Caritas and Tsedaqah

It may rightly be asked whether caritas refers to "charity" at all or whether "love" might not be a better translation of the Christian concept. Aquinas translators Kwasniewski, Bolin, and Bolin offered a response:
      For a translator wishing to be clear, caritas presents no
   difficulty: it must be translated "charity." The fact that for some
   people "charity" has come to mean nothing other than tossing a coin
   into a beggar's cup is no reason to throw it out of theology where
   it occupies the queenliest of places; like many another beautiful
   but endangered species in the English language, it rather needs to
   be rescued and bred in captivity. For the scholastics, charity
   means nothing less than the very love which is God's essence, the
   love that Christ manifested in his death on the cross. The
   reductionism that makes "charity" equivalent to almsgiving or other
   works of mercy--which are really charity's effects--must be
   resisted in the name of both sound English and sound theology. (8)

Aquinas himself defined caritas as "a friendship of man and God." (9) This friendship unites humankind both to God and to other human beings:
   ... [T]he same act of sight sees light and sees color in that

      Now the light in which we must love our neighbour is God, for
   what we ought to love in him is that he be in God. Hence it is
   clear that it is specifically the same act which loves God and
   which loves neighbour. And on this account charity extends not
   merely to the love of God, but also to the love of neighbour." (10)

Aquinas's caritas is love, but it also contains and demands external deeds of kindness:
   ... [K]indness is an act of charity, for loving includes goodwill,
   which as we have said, means willing our friend's good. But willing
   is such that, if the power is present, it carries itself into
   effect. Hence kindness to our friends follows from our loving them.
   And so, in this general sense, kindness is an act of friendship or
   of charity. (11)

   ... [T]he shaping interest in the object of charity and of kindness
   is the same, for as we have seen [in 2a2ae.31.1 above], both of
   them are engaged with a common aspect of good. Hence kindness is
   not a virtue distinct from charity, hut is merely the name given to
   one of charity's acts. (12)

Monetary gifts are explicitly a form of Aquinian charity:
   ... [A]lmsgiving is relief of the needy; which is why some define
   it as a deed whereby something is given to the needy out of
   compassion and for God's sake. Such a motive ... is the concern of
   mercy, and so it is clear that, properly speaking, almsgiving is an
   act of mercy.... Finally, since mercy, as we showed earlier on [in
   2a2ae.30.2], is a consequence of charity, it follows that
   almsgiving is an act of charity, through the medium of mercy. (13)

Clearly, caritas, according to Aquinas, extends far beyond material donations to the needy, but it certainly includes such gifts, and therefore all questions of caritas as love will have implications for material "charity."

Is caritas too broad to be compared with tsedaqah? In a word: no. Just as Aquinas constructed a grand palace of caritas, of which almsgiving is only one room, Maimonides (writing in the Guide for the Perplexed) conceived of tsedaqah as encompassing far more than support for the poor:
      The term zedakah is derived from zedek, "righteousness" ... [W]e
   ... perform an act of zedakah when we fulfil those duties towards
   our fellowmen which our moral conscience imposes upon us; e.g.,
   when we heal the wound of the sufferer. Thus Scripture says, in
   reference to the returning of the pledge [to the poor debtor]: "And
   it shall be zedakah (righteousness) unto thee" (Deut. xxiv. 11).
   When we walk in the way of virtue we act righteously towards our
   intellectual faculty, and pay what is due unto it; and because
   every virtue is thus zedakah, Scripture applies the term to the
   virtue of faith in God. [Cf.] "And he believed in the Lord, and he
   accounted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. xv. 6); "And it shall
   be our righteousness" (Deut. vi. 25). (14)

"[E]very virtue is thus zedakah," said Maimonides, equating the original, scriptural meaning of the term with nothing less than "righteousness" and "faith in God." This definition, like that of Aquinas, exalts charity as not merely one virtue but also as the wellspring of many virtues. This definition, like that of Aquinas, conjoins the relationship of humanity and God with relationships between people, as a union within the same overarching concept. Jewish and Catholic encyclopedias notwithstanding, there appear to be substantial areas of agreement between the Nesher HaGadol and the Doctor Angelicus regarding the nature of charity.

These similarities should not be overemphasized. At the core of Aquinas's caritas is the emotional element of love, and while Aquinas insisted that caritas must lead to practical actions of kindness (see S.T. 2a2ae.31.1 and 2a2ae.32.5), the essential principle is an internal love and goodwill for God and human, which, after the fact, translates into action. The focus of caritas on an intangible feeling rather than real, measurable action is deeply dissonant with the Jewish tradition, which sees obedience to God's Law as the top priority. At the core of Maimonides's tsedaqah, by contrast, is the practical element of faithful obedience in action; its focus on external compliance rather than lofty internal motivation appears backwards when viewed through the prism of Christianity, which preaches justification by faith.

These differences, however, have received more than their share of attention from Jews and Christians eager to demean one another, and the similarities receive scant mention, if any. Those similarities do exist, however neglected they may be. It is this significant measure of overlap between the scale and ends (though not the core principles) of Jewish and Christian charity that justifies the analysis to which we can now turn: orders of priority in Maimonides and Aquinas.

Prioritizing Charity

It is noteworthy that both scholars countenanced prioritization in charity at all; the potential argument for the complete equality or indivisibility of charity might be a strong one. Aquinas, who presented his Summa in a variation on the classical quaestio method of disputation, (15) provided powerful arguments against his own positions on each question before laying out his ultimate conclusions, and this topic is no exception:
   ... [W]here there is one and the same reason for loving different
   persons our love should not be unequal. But there is only one
   reason for loving all our neighbours and that reason is God ... And
   so we are bound to love all our neighbours equally.

      Besides, to love is to wish someone well, as Aristotle says.
   But we wish all our neighbours an equal good, namely eternal life.
   Consequently we should love them all equally. (16)

Yet, Aquinas concluded, in the end, that love can indeed be unequal: "[W]herever there is a principle," he reasoned, "there must always be some kind of order." (17) "Now the order of nature is such that each natural agent acts first and most effectively on things that are nearest to it: fire heats most things in its immediate vicinity.... Now, showing kindness is one way charity acts on others, and hence, the closer we are to people, the more good we should do them." (18)

The Jewish tradition, too, theoretically might have declined to mandate a specific order in charity. Discussing the tithe set aside for the poor during the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle, Maimonides held that if the landowner "only has a small amount of produce and there are many poor people so that he does not have enough to give each one the appropriate measure, he should place [the entire quantity] before them and they should divide it among themselves." (19) This could have been the rule for all tsedaqah: obligating Jews to give their fair share (20) to whatever needy person was closest at hand and leaving it to God, as it were, to ensure that the gifts were distributed properly. Instead, the ruling above applies only to the particular tithe it discusses, and Maimonides (following the lead of the Talmud and other authoritative religious texts) enumerated specific orders of priority for other contexts, assigning donors the responsibility to know these laws and to make their charitable choices accordingly. (21)

Maimonidean Order in Charity

Maimonides's prioritizations in choosing recipients for charity reveal four underlying principles: dignity, birth, Torah knowledge, and closeness to the donor. Let us begin with dignity, a principle that becomes clear in the context of a law that seems to be--but, as we shall see, is not--about gender:
   A woman receives precedence over a man with regard to being given
   sustenance, clothing, and to be redeemed from captivity. (22) [The
   rationale is that] it is common for a man to beg, but not for a
   woman and this is extremely embarrassing for her. If they were both
   held in captivity and they were both solicited for a transgression,
   (23) the man should be redeemed first, because this is not ordinary
   for him. (24)

   When a male and female orphan come seeking assistance in marriage,
   we assist the woman before the man, because the woman's shame is
   greater. (25)

Note that dignity--the avoidance of shame--is the explicit rationale in these passages, not any sense of gender-based chivalry that might call upon men to endure hardships in every case so that women might be relived of them. The phrase "because this is not ordinary for him" in the exception given to this rule of women's precedence (a situation in which male captors might rape captives of any gender) proves that minimizing losses of human dignity is the principle underlying the rule, regardless of gender. Gender is considered only because it happens to be a useful factor for estimating the amount or degree of probable shame in the assumed normal case of charitable giving, but the exception to the rule proves that gender is not relevant in and of itself.

Maimonides also considered the potential recipient's birth in prioritizing charity:
   If there were many poor people or many captives and one does not
   have the means to provide sustenance or clothing for all of them or
   to redeem all of them, a priest is given precedence over a Levite.
   A Levite is given precedence over an Israelite. An Israelite is
   given precedence over a challal, (26) a challal over a shituki,
   (27) a shituki over an asufi, (28) an asufi over a mamzer, (29) a
   mamzer over a netin, (3) and a netin over a convert. [The rationale
   for the latter is that] a netin grew up with us in holiness. (31)

Maimonides did not feel the need to justify the use of birth as a principle for prioritization in general, nor did he feel the need to justify the particular order given, except in the case of the netin preceding the convert: The netin "grew up with us in holiness." Holiness, apparently, is the operative principle here, and this explains the precedence for the priests and Levites, both of whom are assigned extra holiness by Scripture. As for the rest of the hierarchy, the Torah's laws of forbidden sexual unions appear in a section of Leviticus known to modem Bible scholars as "the Holiness Code," due to its overarching theme of Israel's keeping itself holy and/or separate in practices ritual, gastronomic, sexual, and more. This scriptural linkage of conjugal purity with the larger concept of holiness explains the low status that this hierarchy of holiness assigns to those born of forbidden unions, as well as those of unknown parentage who might potentially have been born of those unions.

Holiness, so construed, is a factor entirely out of the control of the potential recipients of charity who are being ranked. The next principle, however, Torah knowledge, suggests a meritocratic element in Maimonidean order. Continuing where the hierarchy of birth order left off, Maimonides wrote: "When does the above apply? When the two [captives] were equal in knowledge. If, however, a High Priest was unlearned and a mamzer was a Torah scholar, the Torah scholar receives precedence. Whoever surpasses his colleague in knowledge receives precedence over his colleague." (32)

Note the specification of Torah knowledge as the relevant meritocratic factor, rather than a more general evaluation that includes other forms of merit. The degree of ritual observance and the degree of ethical uprightness of the potential recipients both seem to be irrelevant, although it is arguable that Maimonides simply conceived of true Torah scholarship as requiring and including high standards of both ritual and ethical piety.

The final--and possibly the highest--principle of order for Maimonides was closeness to the donor: "A person who gives money to his sons and daughters who are past the age of majority and whom he is not obligated to support ... and similarly one who gives food to his father and his mother is included among [those who give] charity. Indeed, it is a very important charity, for precedence is established on one's degree of closeness." (33) Maimonides indicated that this principle of closeness could outweigh even Torah scholarship: "If, however, one [of the poor or the captives] is one's teacher or father, His father or teacher who is a Torah scholar receives precedence over another who surpasses him in wisdom." (34)

By including one's teacher among those whose closeness allows them to precede the more learned in the charitable order of priority, Maimonides may have indicated that his notion of closeness is not limited to blood relations. However, since he indicated that the teacher in question (unlike the father) must be a Torah scholar to some degree if he is to outweigh a more knowledgeable scholar, it can be argued that this passage demonstrates a clear preference for family. Regardless of whether friends can attain the status of family, however, Maimonides certainly indicates in another chapter of Laws of Gifts to the Poor that one's family takes general precedence over others: "A poor person who is one's relative receives priority over all others. The poor of one's household receive priority over the poor of one's city. And the poor of one's city receive priority over the poor of another city, as [implied by Deuteronomy 15:11]: '[You shall surely open your hand to] your brother, the poor, and the destitute in your land.'" (35)

It is as much worth noting what Maimonides does not say in his Laws of Gifts to the Poor as it is what he does say: When discussing the precedence of immediate family above ("one's household"), he chose not to discuss any order of priority within the nuclear family. In this Maimonides differed from his preeminent predecessor in Jewish philosophy, Sa'adiah Gaon (ninth-tenth centuries). This difference was noted by the rabbinical scholar Jacob ben Asher in the fourteenth century. Ben Asher held Maimonides in great esteem, using the Mishneh Torah as one of the primary sources for his own monumental work, Arba'ah Turim. In the section of this work titled "Laws of Tsedaqah," ben Asher reprinted Maimonides's formulation above in order to establish the precedence of the family over others in charity, but apparently ben Asher also felt he needed to inform the reader of the further details in order provided by Sa'adiah:
   Rabbi Sa'adiah wrote that a man must put his own subsistence before
   anyone else, and he is not obligated to give tsedaqah until he has
   his subsistence.... And after he provides for his own life, he puts
   the subsistence of his father and his mother before the subsistence
   of his children ... and if his father and his son are captives, and
   he doesn't have enough to redeem both of them, he should redeem the
   father and abandon the son; and after the children, his siblings;
   and after his siblings, the relatives; and after those related to
   him, his neighbors; and after his neighbors, those who live in his
   city, and after those of his city, captives of other lands. (36)

Four differences appear in which Sa'adiah provided an explicit distinction in rank, while Maimonides did not: First, Sa'adiah explicitly placed oneself before anyone else. Second, Sa'adiah explicitly placed parents above children. Third, Sa'adiah explicitly placed siblings above other relatives. Fourth, Sa'adiah explicitly placed neighbors above other residents of one's own city. It is easy to understand ben Asher's wish to include these important distinctions. However, it is not at all clear that, by neglecting to specify these distinctions, Maimonides necessarily disagreed with Sa'adiah.

Fine points aside, we have seen four basic principles for prioritizing recipients according to Maimonides: dignity, birth, Torah knowledge and closeness. Among the latter three, specific rulings quoted above (37) establish a clear order. Birth is relevant, but it is outweighed by Torah scholarship, which is itself preceded by closeness to the donor. The principle of dignity, however, was not located by Maimonides in any specific position of this order. This leaves the student who seeks to chart a definitive Maimonidean order with four possibilities for the order of underlying principles:

Dignity, Closeness, Torah Knowledge, Birth

Closeness, Dignity, Torah Knowledge, Birth

Closeness, Torah Knowledge, Dignity, Birth

Closeness, Torah Knowledge, Birth, Dignity

These four possible orders of principle, fleshed out more fully, yield these four possible orders of charity:

In addition to these principles of order for recipients of charity, Maimonides famously ranked eight methods of giving:
Greater shame                   Family
Lesser shame                    Non-family
  Family                          Fellow citizens
  Non-family                      Residents of other cities
    Fellow citizens                 Greater shame
    Residents of other cities       Lesser shame
      Torah scholars                  Torah scholars
      Non-scholars                    Non-scholars
        Priests                         Priests
        Levites                         Levites
        Israelites                      Israelites
        Challal                         Challal
        Shituki                         Shituki
        Asufi                           Asufi
        Mamzer                          Mamzer
        Netin                           Netin
        Convert                         Convert
        Slave                           Slave

Family                          Family
Non-family                      Non-family
  Fellow citizens                 Fellow citizens
  Residents of other cities       Residents of other cities
    Torah scholars                  Torah scholars
    Non-scholars                    Non-scholars
      Greater shame                   Priests
      Lesser shame                      Greater
        Priests                         shame
        Levites                           Lesser shame
        Israelites                    Levites
        Challal                         Greater
        Shituki                         shame
        Asufi                           Lesser shame
        Mamzer                        Israelites
        Netin                           Greater
        Convert                         shame
        Slave                           Lesser shame

1. [A] person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand will be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms].

2. [O]ne who gives charity to the poor without knowing to whom he gave and without the poor person knowing from whom he received. For this is an observance of the mitzvah for its sake alone.

3. [A]n instance when the giver knows to whom he is giving, but the poor person does not know from whom he received.

4. [A]n instance when the poor person knows from whom he took, hut the donor does not know to whom he gave.

5. [G]iving [the poor person] in his hand before he asks.

6. [G]iving him after he asks.

7. [G]iving him less than what is appropriate, but with a pleasant countenance.

8. [G]iving him with sadness. (38)

Three principles seem to underlie this order of giving methods: effectiveness ("so that he will not have to ask others"), purity of motivation ("For this is an observance of the mitzvah for its sake alone") and the dignity of the recipient, which is not explicitly mentioned but may be surmised for the lack of any other explanations for the ordering of the lowest four levels. (One could argue that this consideration also informs the order of the higher four levels, but this cannot be taken for granted since Maimonides supplied alternative explanations for them.)

This most famous framework represents one of the sharpest differences between Maimonides and Aquinas; while Aquinas also sets principles of order for recipients of charity, he did not provide a ranked order for methods of giving charity in parallel to Maimonides's eight levels. It is not immediately clear whether this reflects a generally lesser degree of rigidity in Aquinas than is found in Maimonides or a more deliberate choice to leave this question unaddressed.

Aquinian Order in Charity

Aquinas's order revolves mostly around two simultaneous factors: closeness to God, and closeness to the charitable person. Different relative positions on these two spectra produce different priorities in terms of charity for each potential recipient. Summing up the order that emerges from this system, Aquinas wrote:
   [I]t is necessary that the affection of man be so inclined through
   charity that, first and foremost, each one loves God; secondly,
   that he love himself; and thirdly, that he love his neighbor. And
   among the fellow-men, he ought to give mutual help to those who are
   more closely united to him or who are more closely related to him.

      ... Finally, we ought to love our body. (39)

Loving God precedes loving one's neighbor: "[I]t is God, primarily and above all, who is to be loved in charity, for him we love as the cause of eternal happiness, our neighbour as sharing with us a happiness we both have from God." (40) Loving God also precedes loving oneself: "[M]an is bound in charity to love God, who is the common good of all things, more than himself; for eternal happiness is to be found in God as in the common principle and source of all things which are capable of sharing such happiness." (41)

Aquinas's consideration of where God fits into the order of caritas reveals another difference with Maimonides, who did not bring God into his considerations of the order for tsedaqah. This must not be taken, however, as a sign that Maimonides did not assign God the highest priority. Rather, as he explained in his Guide for the Perplexed, tsedaqah is by definition a form of faithful obedience of God. Therefore, it can be surmised, the prioritization of God above all else is expressed by obeying God's commandments, including the laws of charitable giving. Thus, it would be tautological to mention God as the highest priority in faithfully obeying God--that is, performing tsedaqah. The fact that Aquinas did, and Maimonides did not, identify God as the first and foremost object of charity reflects no difference in attitude toward God but, rather, a difference in understanding the nature of charity.

Aquinas further differed from Maimonides in specifying love for oneself over love for one's neighbor, although Aquinas is in parallel here with Jewish sages other than Maimonides, as evidenced by ben Asher's quotation of Sa'adiah Gaon noted earlier: "Rabbi Sa'adiah wrote that a man must put his own subsistence before anyone else, and he is not obligated to give tsedaqah until he has his subsistence, as it is written [in Leviticus 25:36], 'so your brother may live with you.'" (42) Aquinas even derived his law in quite a similar manner to that of Sa'adiah, undertaking a close reading of a Pentateuchal verse. He read Lev. 19:18, "and you shall love your neighbour as yourself," to imply that "a man's love for himself is, so to speak, the paradigm of his love for others. Now the paradigm is more than what takes after it. Therefore a man is bound in charity to love himself more than his neighbour." (43) Love for oneself also follows Aquinas's two spectra of closeness: The self is tautologically close to the self, (44) and, regarding closeness to God, Aquinas pointed out that every person rightly belongs to God, and, therefore, "among other things which, as belonging to God he loves out of charity, man also loves himself." (45) (Since this latter justification would apply equally to neighbors, it is the former spectrum--closeness to the self--that tips the balance in favor of loving oneself more than one's neighbor.)

Aquinas next established that one should love one's neighbor (body and soul) more than one's own body, though less than one's own soul--another distinction not to be found in Jewish legal discourse on the subject, due to different understandings of charity. (Aquinas's caritas is eternal, and will endure in heaven; (46) Maimonides's tsedaqah is faithful obedience in earthly action.) While Aquinas placed one's neighbor before one's body, he held that the body's nature as a Divine creation requires one to love one's body, "though not the taint of sin and the corruption that punishment brings it." (47)

In determining that one should love some neighbors more than others, Aquinas returned to his two measures of closeness: "[A]s such love issues from a double principle, God, and the person who loves, it necessarily follows that the nearer its object is to either of these the dearer it is." Regarding the "lover" (that is, the charitable person), "we speak of love being greater in the sense of its act being more intense. And from this point of view we are not bound to love everyone equally." Regarding closeness to God, "Not all our neighbours are equally close to God, but the greater goodness of some makes them closer to him than others, and so more entitled to be loved in charity." (48)

Like Maimonides--and in similar words--Aquinas held that "the more closely a person is connected with us the more we love him." (49) Drawing a firmer distinction than Maimonides did, Aquinas further stated that loving family members more than others is obligatory, noting that "in the ten commandments we are especially commanded to honou our parents. Therefore those who are related to us by blood are to be more specially loved." (50) Aquinas did not discount the importance of other types of closeness: "Now kindred-friendship is based on natural origin; friendship between citizens on a common civic interest; and between fellow-soldiers on the comradeship of war. In what touches nature, therefore, we must love our blood-relatives the most, in things relating to civic life our fellow-citizens, and in affairs of war our companions in arms." (51) These other ties, however, do not have the full status of the bonds of family: "[I]f we compare one such union with another, it is clear that the bond of natural origin is something prior and more fixed, because it has to do with the very substance of a human being, while others come after it and can be undone." (52)

In another difference from Maimonides that parallels Sa'adiah Gaon, Aquinas distinguished between parents and children. While seeking to maintain some balance, writing that "parents are entitled to honour from their children, while their children are more entitled to be provided for by them," (53) in the final analysis Aquinas held that "in case of extreme necessity, a man would be justified in abandoning his children in favour of his parents; for, as Aristotle makes clear in the Ethics, the benefits we have received from our parents create an obligation towards them so serious that nothing could ever justify our abandoning them." (54) (This formulation parallels the quotation from Sa'adiah in ben Asher's Arba'ah Turim, cited earlier: "and if his father and his son are captives, and he doesn't have enough to redeem both of them, he should redeem the father and abandon the son.") (55) Unlike Jewish sources, however, Aquinas tied this decision to his spectrum of closeness to God, according to which "we must prefer whatever represents the greater good, and more closely resembles God. Thus a father is to be loved more than a son, because we love our father as a source or principle of our being." (56) This philosophical notion of the father as the primary source of the person is carried a step further as Aquinas ruled that "speaking per se, it is the father who ought to be loved more than the mother," because "the father, as the active partner, is a principle in a higher way than the mother, who supplies the passive or material element. And so, speaking per se, the father should be loved the more." (57) (An apologetic translator's note appears here in the Blackfriars edition saying, "St Thomas is obviously at some pains to point out here that he is talking in the abstract.")

So far, so clear: Aquinas has given us a straightforward hierarchical order in which to locate a number of recipients of caritas:
    Neighbors (body & soul)
             Close people
                      Other relatives
             Friends (not blood relations)

   One's own body

Unfortunately, Aquinas did not restrict his discussions to questions with single answers. A number of questions intrude on the simple layout above, introducing ambiguous and unquantifiable factors and transforming Aquinas's final "order" into more of an unchartable set of concerns, all of which must be balanced in the judgment of the charitable. Considering whether a man should love his wife or his parents more, for example, Aquinas presents a split decision based on his parallel principles of closeness to God and human being:
   As we have noted already, the degrees of love may be reckoned both
   in terms of the good, which is its object, and in terms of the
   intimacy between lover and loved. As to the good, the object of
   love, parents are to be preferred to wives because they are loved
   as principles and so represent a higher good. But in terms of
   intimacy, a wife is to be loved more, because she is joined to her
   husband in such a way that they are one flesh, as we gather from
   the Gospel [of Matthew 19:6], "So they are no longer two but one."
   On this account a man loves his wife more intensely but should show
   greater reverence for his parents. (58)

Aquinas provided no practical guidance for the "nightmare scenario" in which one is forced to make a choice between wife and parents. Equally complicated is the matter of how sinners and enemies should be loved. Sinners are certainly included in charity: "[T]he fact that they are sinners is what we must hate, and the fact that they are capable of eternal happiness is what we must love in them. And this is truly to love them out of charity for God's sake." (59) It is the expression of this charity toward sinners that is delicate. He asks, "[A]re we obliged in charity to give open expression to this love for our enemies?" (6) The reply is:
   [T]here are some [outward expressions of love] that we give our
   neighbors in general, such as praying for all the faithful, or for
   the whole people, or doing some service for the entire community.
   And the fulfillment of the commandment requires such even towards
   our enemies ...

      But there are others which we reserve especially for certain
   people, and which it is not necessary for salvation that we display
   towards our enemies, though we must be prepared to do so by coming
   to their aid in a case of urgent need ... But to show an enemy this
   kind of favour, apart from urgent necessity, is proof of perfect
   charity. (61)

In declaring certain acts of charity toward sinners to be permissible, but not obligatory, Aquinas again paralleled (62) Jewish opinions that Maimonides chose not to include in his Laws of Girls to the Poor: "Rabbi Eliezer wrote that a poor Jew who transgresses any one of all the commandments is not included in the principle 'so your brother may live with you' [Leviticus 25:36], so there is no obligation to give tsedaqah to him until it is known that he has repented." (63)

Later in his Summa, Aquinas proceeded further than this, declaring that in certain cases withholding charitable action toward sinners is not only permissible but even laudable as public policy:
      To prevent them from further evil-doing it is right that
   excommunicates and public enemies be deprived of certain benefits.
   Where, however, there is some pressing need to save them from
   personal harm, they must be given the help they need; for instance
   where there is danger that they may die of hunger or thirst or
   suffer a like loss, they may be helped in a legitimate way, and
   provided that they have not been condemned to suffer such things by
   a court of justice. (64)

      A sinner, as such, has no claim to be helped; in fact to do so
   would only be to encourage him in sin, but as a man, that is, as
   far as his human needs are concerned, he is entitled to our help.

This policy of addressing sinners' urgent needs, coupled with a general admonition to withhold friendship for the sake of correction, makes a simple, one-size-fits-all ranking of sinners as charity recipients impossible. Aquinas similarly presented an ambiguous answer to the question of whether one should love more someone who has been a benefactor to one, or someone to whom one has been a benefactor. (66) Even the apparently simple dictum, quoted earlier, that "the more closely a person is connected with us the more we love him," (67) becomes more complicated upon further inspection; Aquinas favored the balance of principles such as this against other principles, such as the level of need: "Other things being equal, it is better to give to the one in greater want." (68) The usefulness/goodness (closeness to God) of the potential recipients also comes into play, even within one's own family:
      It is by a kind of chance, remarks Augustine [in De Doctrina
   Christ I, 28], that we find ourselves tied to some people more
   closely than others in life, and by that token are more
   bound to look after them. For all that, we must exercise
   a certain discernment in the
   matter, mindful of the fact that there are varying degrees of
   relationship as well as of holiness and usefulness. Thus a holier
   person who is in greater need, and who is more useful for the
   common good, should come before another who is closer to us; this
   is particularly the case where the relationship is not so close as
   to put us under a special obligation and where no greater need
   exists. (69)

Aquinas called upon the charitable to judge these necessary balances for themselves:
   [S]ince the love of charity reaches out to embrace everybody,
   kindness, too, must go out to everybody, given, of course, the
   right place and the right time, for acts of the virtues must all be
   subject to the limits set by the due circumstances ... Absolutely
   speaking, it is impossible for us to do good to everyone
   individually. At the same time there is no individual so isolated
   that a situation could not arise where it would be necessary to
   come to his help. (7)

   As to deciding whom to help where one person is more closely
   connected with us and the other more in want, there is no general
   rule that we can apply, on account of all the varying degrees both
   of want and of personal relationship: this is where recourse to the
   judgement of a prudent man is called for. (71)

It should be noted that, while Maimonides did not explicitly state that his own charitable orders are subject to change based on the judgment of charitable practitioners, it is arguable that the Jewish legal system inherently includes this principle, as evidenced by its empowerment of rabbis and religious courts to make rulings.


Having examined both scholars' principles of charitable order in depth, we can state that Maimonides and Aquinas shared a number of principles of charity. Both agreed that charity includes, but transcends, giving material support for the needy and that charity unites the human-Divine relationship with interpersonal relationships. Both agreed that certain people should take precedence over others in charity. Both considered the immediate state of the recipient (greatest need for Aquinas; greater shame for Maimonides). Both considered closeness to the donor, with a special emphasis on the bonds of family. Both considered religious merit in some way (Torah knowledge for Maimonides; degree of sin for Aquinas).

A number of differences also emerge--in understanding the nature of charity, in the specific level of distinction, and, most notably, in the degree of flexibility or rigidity and in the choice of internal/external emphasis. It appears that Aquinas left much more to judgment than did Maimonides. This difference manifests not only in Aquinas's many ambiguous answers but also in the fact that he did not explore priorities in methods of giving as Maimonides did in his famous eight levels. It is equally clear that Aquinas focused primarily on internal love, while Maimonides focused primarily on external action.

In a certain way, these differences may represent the grains of truth within each religion's caricature of the other's charity. Jewish thought demeans caritas by claiming that it does not command tangible action, but its focus truly is primarily on internal love. Christian thought demeans tsedaqah by claiming that it is only external, with no element of a higher principle of faith, but it truly is more rigidly defined in earthly terms. Value judgments regarding these differences will tend to lead to unwarranted exaggeration, but the differences do exist.

Further research ought to explore not only the historical development of these two concepts of charity but also the historiographical development of the negative charity narratives that each religion has told about the other. Many theological topics constitute disagreements between Judaism and Christianity that cannot end short of the arrival of one messiah or another; charity need not be among these. The differences between tsedaqah and caritas cannot be swept under the rug, but a slate of long-unacknowledged similarities between the two is ripe for exploration by scholars, by clergy, by charity professionals, by philanthropists, and by the Jewish and Christian flocks.

(1) See, e.g., the essays in Jacob I. Dienstag, ed., Studies in Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 1975).

(2) See "Charity," in The Jewish Encyclopedia, available at view.jsp?artid=371&letter=C&search=charity#1243; emphasis mine.

(3) See "Charity and Charities," in The Catholic Encyclopedia at and at; emphasis mine.

(4) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 34, Charity (2a2ae. 23-33), tr. R. J. Batten (Blackfriars in conjunction with New York: McGraw Hill Book Co.; and London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964), 23.6, p. 25 (hereafter, S.T.; all references are to this volume, including question and article and the page.)

(5) Ibid., 32.5, pp. 251-257.

(6) Tosefta. Tractate Gittin. 3:13-14.

(7) Babylonian Talmud. Tractate Gittin, 61a.

(8) Thomas Aquinas, On Love and Charity: Readings from the "Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard," tr. Peter A. Kwasniewski, Thomas Bolin, and Joseph Bolin (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), p. xxii; emphasis in original.

(9) S.T., 23.1, p. 7.

(10) Ibid., 25.1, p. 83.

(11) Ibid., 31.1, pp. 223 and 225.

(12) Ibid., 31.4, p. 233 and 235.

(13) Ibid., 32.1, p. 239.

(14) Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, tr. M. Friedlander, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1904; London: George Routledge Sons; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1925), part III, chap. LIII, p. 393; available at

(15) Thomas Aquinas, On Charity (De Caritate), tr. and intro. Lottie H. Kendzierski, Mediaeval Philosophical Texts in Translation 10 (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1960), p. 4.

(16) S.T., 26.6, p. 133; emphasis in original.

(17) Ibid., 26.2, p. 121.

(18) Ibid., 31.3, p. 229.

(19) Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Hilchot Matnot Aniyiim" ("Laws of Gifts to the Poor"), 6.9; what follows uses the online translation via Chabad-Lubavitch, which is available at Matnot-Aniyiim.htm.

(20) The question of obligatory quantities of charity in the Jewish and Christian traditions is itself an enormous topic.

(21) In order to facilitate comparison, I will henceforth exclude from this analysis the ruling above concerning the tithe for the poor, along with other rulings from Maimonides that are applicable only in the context of the Torah's agricultural charity system, in order to concentrate on the general principles of order in charity operable in a broad array of contexts.

(22) Maimonides, in line with rabbinic tradition, considered the redemption of captives (by paying ransom) to be not just an act of charity but the highest act of charity ("Hilchot Matnot Aniyiim," 8.10).

(23) This refers to a case in which there is reason to believe the captors may rape captives of either gender.

(24) Maimonides, "Hilchot Matnot Aniyiim," 8.15.

(25) Ibid., 8.16.

(26) A profaned priest, i.e., a man of the priestly line, born of or descended from a union forbidden to priests.

(27) One who knows the identity of his mother but not of his father.

(28) A found child who knows the identity of neither of his parents.

(29) A child born of, or descended from, an incestuous or adulterous relationship.

(30) A Gibeonite.

(31) Maimonides, "Hilchot Matnot Aniyi im," 8.17.

(32) Ibid., 8.18.

(33) Ibid., 10.16; emphasis mine.

(34) Ibid., 8.18.

(35) Ibid., 7.13.

(36) Jacob ben Asher, Arba 'ah Turim, "Hilchot Tsedaqah" ("Laws of Charity"), 251; my translation from the Hebrew.

(37) Maimonides, "Hilchot Matnot Aniyiim," 8.17-18.

(38) Ibid., 10.7-14.

(39) Aquinas, On Charity, a.9, p. 77.

(40) Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae.26.2, p. 123.

(41) Ibid., 26.3, p. 127.

(42) ben Asher, "Hilchot Tsedaqah," 251; emphasis mine.

(43) S.T., 26.4, p. 129; emphasis mine.

(44) Ibid., 25.4, p. 91.

(45) Ibid., 25.4, p. 93.

(46) Ibid., 26.13, pp. 155-159.

(47) Ibid., 25.6, p. 95.

(48) Ibid., 26.6, p. 135.

(49) Ibid., 26.7, p. 141.

(50) Ibid., 26.8, p. 143.

(51) Ibid.

(52) Ibid.

(53) Ibid., 26.9, p.147.

(54) Ibid., 31.3, p. 233.

(55) ben Asher. "Hilchot Tzedakah.". 251.

(56) S.T., 26.9, p. 145.

(57) Ibid., 26.10, p. 149.

(58) Ibid., 26.11, p. 151; emphasis mine.

(59) Ibid., 25.6, p. 97.

(60) Ibid., 25.9, p. 107.

(61) Ibid., p. 109.

(62) The degree to which, and ways in which, Aquinas might have encountered these and other Jewish ideas outside Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed (which Aquinas quoted in his Summa) must be left for others to explore.

(63) ben Asher, "Hilchot Tsedaqah," 251.

(64) S. T., 31.2, p. 227.

(65) Ibid., 32.9, p. 269.

(66) Ibid., 26.12, pp. 153 and 155.

(67) Ibid., 26.7, p. 141.

(68) Ibid., 32.3, p. 249.

(69) Ibid., 32.9, p. 269; emphasis mine.

(70) Ibid., 31.2, p. 227.

(71) Ibid., 31.3, p. 231; emphasis mine.

Seth Chalmer (Jewish) has been Assistant Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service since 2011. He began at the Archive in 2008 as a research assistant, then as director of communications. He worked previously at the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York as a retention specialist, working with formerly incarcerated clients (2007-080; at the Dayton (OH) Jewish Community Center (2006-07); at Stivers School for the Arts, Dayton, OH, as an acting teacher, 2005-06; and for Sesame Street Live as a performer with the national touring company (2004-05). Since 2010, he has been a volunteer advisory board member of Israel 2.0, Passaic, NJ. He holds a B.F.A. in acting from the Wright State University, Dayton, OH; and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management (2011) from Wagner School of Public Service. He is currently a part-time M.A. candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at the Skirball Dept. of Hebrew & Judaic Studies at New York University. His essay, "A Father's Lectures," appears in This I Believe: On Fatherhood, ed. Dan Gediman, John Gregory, and Mary Jo Gediman (Jossey-Bass, 2011); and "The Jews Occupying Wall Street" and "A Particularly Universal Love" have appeared on the "On the Square" blog of First Things. He has written numerous blog posts for the Berman Jewish Policy Archive's blog and composed "VeEirastikh Li / Anah Dodi," a musical setting of verses from Hosea and the Song of Songs, recorded online in 2010.
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Date:Mar 22, 2012
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