By Norris Burkes Dec 3 2023

This is the time of year that many of us consider our charitable-donation budget. But as we decide how much to give, perhaps we also ought to calculate why we give.

In his list called “Eight Degrees of Charity,” the 13th century Rabbi Moses Maimonides offers wise council for weighing our motives.

I’ve mentioned his list a few times in this column, but like Dicken’s “Christmas Carol,” the list inspires me each time I revisit it.  The unabridged catalogue can be found on my website, but since it has many nuances, allow me this paraphrased summary.

Maimonides describes his list as a ladder, so let’s begin at the bottom rung, the lowest form of charity.

  1. Sometimes we give only because we are uncomfortable with our wealth.

This sentiment is aptly described by Tibetan Buddhist Trungpa Rinpoche as “Idiot compassion.” You can see it in the actions of retirees like me who did this during the pandemic. As our savings bulged with stimulus checks and investment returns, we started giving to the local foodbank.

No judgment here. I think Maimonides would say that most charity is good charity.

Still, it’s hard to sort our good motives from our lesser ones. That’s why the rabbi encouraged us to work our way up the ladder.

  1. Let us give cheerfully but not too much.

We do this by dropping a few bucks in the Salvation Army kettle or the church offering. We smile generously, but we know it’s woefully inadequate.

  1. Just ask me and I’ll donate.

Generous, yes. But why must we be asked first?

In Honduras, as in many Latin countries, people of all income levels will carry charity money to give to those who ask. The San Francisco company GoFundMe began with the premise of giving to those who ask. The tragic drama in many requests inspires us to give. In 2021 they generated $22.6M in revenue.

  1. Let’s give without being asked.

This sounds like a clean motive but it’s low on the ladder because the giver may be doing it to gain attention. On one hand, it’s the kind of giving we might do when we say we pick up the dinner check. On the positive side, it’s the kind of giving we do when a neighbor needs our assistance.

  1. We should give to those we don’t know, but they should know who we are.

A lot of us achieve this when we give to the homeless woman at the intersection. It’s a kind act, but there’s no way to avoid making the recipient feel less-than.

  1. I like to give anonymously but I need to know who’s getting it.

This may seem like a high form of giving, but not quite. Maimonides cautions that since “subconsciously, the giver might gain a pleasure and a sense of power over the recipient, this detracts from his act.”

  1. I like to give anonymously and don’t want anyone to know

This one is tricky, but the best modern-day example is the Salvation Army Kettle. Your donation helps the poor, but you will never know who they are, and they will never know who you are. You have no say in where the money goes and cannot take it back.

And the highest degree of charity motive on Maimonides list is…

1.Let’s form a business partnership with the poor.

“What?” you ask. “Business is not charity!”

The rabbi considered this the highest charitable form because it “strengthens the hand of the poor through either a gift or an interest-free loan.” Surprisingly, Maimonides considered the loan better than an outright gift “since the poor are not shamed.”

This charity is best illustrated in the saying, “Give a person a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”

It’s this charitable approach that has inspired me to proudly promote Chispa Project in this column for the past eight years.

Chispa establishes libraries in Honduran elementary schools with the help of Honduran teachers, parents and students who will organize, plan and monitor the libraries.

Each Honduran community is asked to raise a symbolic portion of the costs (less than 4% of the total project). In this way Maimonides highest principle is applied and the schools establish ownership, pride, and better sustainability of the library.

“Pure” charity is about improving the lives of others, not our own. Yet still I think even Maimonides would have to admit that sometimes we need to do something to feel better. Regardless of our motive, someone is helped.

In any case none of us have a pure heart, so thankfully most charities are able to help those in need regardless of our motive to give.


Maimonides’ full writing is available at

If you will start a monthly donation to Chispa or give a onetime donation of more than $100, I will send you a free book from the list at

Make checks to “Chispa Project’ and send to 10556 Combie Rd Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602. Comments received at same address or by email or at (843) 608-9715.