Question: Very often we encounter beggars on the street, especially at the Western Wall Plaza. Are we obligated to give something to everyone who puts out his hand? How much must give? It has happened to me that I gave a pauper a small sum and he scornfully returned it to me. How is it possible to know whether someone is really poor or simply a liar? Is it permissible to refuse to give a donation?
Answer: Generally speaking, we do not give Tzedakah without a serious investigation. There is only one exception, and that is if someone approaches asking for food because he is hungry. There, we must give him something immediately. The Shulchan Aruch says as follows: "If a poor person whom we do not know says, 'I am hungry. Feed me,' we do not investigate the possibility that he is a liar. Rather, we contribute immediately. If someone lacked clothing and said, 'I lack clothing. Give me money to buy some,' we investigate to see whether he is a liar" (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 151:10).
Indeed, if someone refuses to give Tzedakah when he has money in hand, he is considered cruel, and he violates a mitzvah of the Torah. Yet as with all mitzvot, the mitzvah of Tzedakah has restrictions as well. The restriction on Tzedakah is that we do not give it to everyone who asks for it, but only to those who it has become clear really need it, as in Rambam's words, "According to our information, they are in financial straits" (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 232). If someone gives without investigating, and the collector turns out to be a cheater, then he has not fulfilled the mitzvah of Tzedakah. Rather, he has squandered his money and caused loss to genuine poor people.
Wicked men tried to kill Yirmiyahu. He then cursed them saying, "Master of the Universe! Even when those people perform charitable acts, make them stumble by having them perform their acts for disreputable people, so that they should not reap merit for it" (Baba Kamma 16b). Even the wicked are sometimes aroused to perform good deeds, yet if they give their money to charlatans, they will not fulfill any mitzvah thereby.
It is true that regarding all the mitzvot of the Torah, a person is presumed reputable, truthful, honest and good, until proven otherwise. This principle has several exceptions, however, for example, the beggar mentioned above, and that is because of the large number of cheaters. The same applies in our own time. The great halachic authorities of our generation have ruled that all beggars are to be presumed swindlers until proven otherwise. There are some very wealthy beggars, for example, in Jerusalem. A beggar who walks from the Central Bus Station to the Kotel can collect 500 to 800 shekel per day.
Obviously, the investigative process to find out whether the beggar is a swindler or not cannot be carried out by just anyone, but only by a Bet Din, a Rabbinic court (see Otzar Mefarshei Ha-Talmud, Baba Metzia, 27b). The Bet Din then awards the beggar a certificate which the legal authorities have labeled a Ketav Kibbutz [writ of collection] (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 253:12 in the Rama).
Yet we must be cautious to ensure that the beggar's "Ketav Kibbutz" is not forged. There was a swindler who forged the certificate of a great Rabbi, yet got confused between the Rabbi and the Rabbi's father-in-law, also a great Rabbi, who had passed away several decades previous. Another swindler collected money for a deathly ill person, using a genuine certificate, but pocketed the money for himself. Nonetheless, Divine Providence brought him to the home of the ill person himself, who had already been healthy for quite a while. All of the preceding relates to a person who is suffering financial distress and approaches members of a charitable institution in hopes of their solving his problem. They therefore share a sizable portion of the responsibility for saving him from his troubles.
Regarding the beggar who approaches everyone, one after another, the law is different, however. The halachic authorities call that person a "door-to-door beggar," and the Shulchan Aruch rules: "We are not obligated to give a large sum to the beggar who goes door to door. Rather, we may give him a small sum" (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 250:3). That beggar is approaching many people, and from all of them together he will attain what he needs.
How much is "a small sum"? Rambam writes: "If a beggar goes door to door, we are not obligated to give him a large sum, but only a small one. Still, the Rabbis forbade us to turn him away empty-handed. It is enough, however, to give him a single dried fig, as it says, 'Let not the oppressed return ashamed' (Tehillim 74:21)" (Matanot Aniyim 7:4). It is therefore enough to give him a fig or its monetary equivalent, in other words, twenty Israeli agorot (at present, about five American cents). In that way, the beggar will be able to collect 100 shekels per day. If he is insulted and refuses to accept a small gift, it is a sign that he is not really poor. Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi wrote: "If a pauper begs door to door, it is enough to give him a small gift. At the same time, if is forbidden to turn him away empty-handed... In our day, however, there are poor people who are not satisfied with a little bit, and they demand set amounts, emphasizing that they must be given nothing less. These people bear letters from Rabbis or physicians assisting them in their cause. The number of people behaving licentiously in this regard has become great, and I am not certain that it is possible to rely on a recommendation. In any event, since these people are classed among those who stretch out their hands, there is no obligation to give them more than a small gift, as is defined by Halachah. A real poor person such as in called an "Evyon" in the Torah (Devarim 15:4) does not pamper himself. He accepts whatever he is given, even a dried fig, as in Rambam's definition. If someone refuses small gifts, we bear no responsibility for him" (Aseh Lecha Rav 9:34-35).
Therefore, whoever wishes to fulfill the mitzvah of Tzedakah properly should give to known and recognized organizations of Tzedakah and kindness.