It being 17 Tammuz, a fast day, Yeshivat Hadar was learning about fasting.
We learned the story from Ketubot 67b:
In Mar Ukba’s neighbourhood there lived a poor guy, and every day Mar Ukba used to leave a dollar in his mailbox. One day, the poor guy decided to find out who was leaving these dollars, so he kept a look out. Now, that day Mar Ukba stayed late at the beit midrash, and his wife came to find him. They went home together via the poor guy’s mailbox, and the guy spotted them and came out! Mar Ukba and Mrs Ukba ran away fast fast fast, and hid [naturally] in a conveniently-empty communal oven. But it was still hot, and Mar Ukba’s legs got burned, ouch. But his wife’s legs were fine.
So she says to him, stand on my feet. And he does, but he’s devastated. Well, dear, she says to him, what do you expect? You give charity to the poor by putting an anonymous dollar in the mailbox, I do it by having them round for meals.
Thus it is said, it’s better to leap into a fiery furnace than embarrass someone publicly.
Well, you can analyse that as much as you like, re: different modes of giving charity and their respective merits, relationships with those to whom one is obligated, and so on, and we did, but my brilliant chevruta remembered another story about people who go into ovens, and WOW, is that one ever brilliant.
Get this.
Bava Metzia 85a. Rabbi Zeira used to live in Babylon, but mid-life he went to Israel. There were learning communities in both places, and there were a few rabbis who travelled between them, carrying the Torah of the communities one to the other. This was how the academies of Babylon learned the scholarship of the academies of Israel, and vice versa. Important exchange of scholarship.
But Rabbi Zeira, when he went to Israel, he fasted a hundred fasts so that he would forget all the Torah he had learned in Babylon, so as to be able to concentrate on the Torah he could learn in Israel.
Rabbi Zeira fasted another hundred fasts so that Rabbi Elazar, administrative head of the community, would not die and leave all the world on his, Rabbi Zeira’s, shoulders.
And he fasted another hundred fasts so that the fires of Gehennom would not burn him in the hereafter.
He used to make sure he was okay vis-a-vis Gehennom thus: every month he’d go stand in an oven, and his legs wouldn’t get burned, so he knew he was fine. But one time, his colleagues gave him the evil eye, and his legs got burned. And ever afterwards he was known as “that little guy with the burny legs.”
Now connect to Berakhot 6b, which teaches that how the whole point of fasting is charity, and Sanhedrin 35a: one who fasts without doing their charitable duty is like one who spills blood. Not to be overly judgemental, but Rabbi Zeira’s motives could have used a bit of work – I mean, he wanted to learn Torah from other people but he didn’t want to share his own Torah; he didn’t want to share the duties of running the community, and he apparently wasn’t 100% comfortable with his own behaviour because he still had to keep fasting to avoid the fires of the hereafter.
And his colleagues weren’t so delighted either; they gave him burny legs!
The Mar Ukba story makes it quite easy to judge Mar Ukba negatively – his feet got burned, his wife’s didn’t, so his method of giving charity wasn’t utterly reprehensible but it wasn’t amazing either. But compare to Rabbi Zeira! In Sanhedrin 37a, we hear that Rabbi Zeira used to hang out in rough neighbourhoods trying to get the locals to repent and reform (his colleagues didn’t approve of that either, incidentally). Even someone who agrees that reformation is generally a good thing ought to be able to see that this type of charity is not awfully appropriate, being unsought, imposed, condescending, and lacking all empathy. Leaving a dollar in the mailbox may not be ideal, but it’s a heck of a lot better than going up to someone and saying “Ah, you look like a poor person! Here, poor person! Let me give you this healthy apple I didn’t fancy at lunchtime.”
There are lots of ways of giving charity. I may not be on the Mrs Mar Ukba* model, I don’t usually form human relationships with the recipients of my giving (and anyway that’s not always entirely appropriate); but at least I’m not on the Rabbi Zeira model, imposing said relationships to make myself feel good. There are worse things than just giving money to charities.
* I know Mar means Mr. Mrs Mar Ukba is humorous.