Tzedakah – Understanding a Paradoxical Concept

In English, the words ‘charity’ and ‘justice’ denote two very different concepts. As we discuss in this class, the word tzedakah combines these two themes to create a new understanding of our responsibilities to others. This gives us opportunity to explore the idea of human responsibility more broadly and to understand the consistent emphasis on human dignity in the laws of tzedakah.

  1. Devarim 15:7-11
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs… Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you have put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in the land.

Religious Significance

  1. Talmud, Bava Batra
Consider the difference between the Holy One and a king of flesh and blood. If a man brings a present to the king, it may or may not be accepted. Even if it is accepted, it remains doubtful whether the man will be admitted into the king’s presence. Not so with the Holy One. A person who gives even a small coin to a beggar is deemed worthy of being admitted to behold the Divine presence, as it is written, ‘I shall behold your face through charity, and when I awake, shall be satisfied with Your likeness.’ (Ps.17:15)

R Eleazar used to give a coin to a poor man and only then recite his prayer, because, he said, it is written, ‘I, through charity, shall behold Your face.’

Rights and Responsibilities

  1. Midrash Tanchuma
The wicked tyrant Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, ‘Which are more pleasing, the works of God or the works of human beings?’ Rabbi Akiva replied, ‘The works of human beings.’ Rufus asked, ‘Behold, the heaven and the earth – can human beings make anything like them?’ Rabbi Akiva replied, ‘Do not bring an argument from things which are altogether beyond human capacity. Speak only of things human beings can do.’ Rufus replied, ‘Why do you circumcise your children?’ Rabbi Akiva said, ‘I knew this was the point of your question. That is why I pre-empted you and said that the works of human beings are more pleasing than those of God.’ Rabbi Akiva then brought out ears of wheat and cakes and said, ‘These are the work of God and these are the work of human beings. Are the cakes not more agreeable than the ears of wheat?’
  1. Irwin Cotler, I am Jewish
The Pirkei Avot instructed: Where people avert their eyes from evil, our responsibility must be to confront it – to stand up and be counted – which later found expression, I suspect, in my advocacy on behalf of oppressed Jews, and, indeed, oppressed peoples; and to write of a Duty to Protect under International Humanitarian Law, and the need for humanitarian intervention in the Balkans, Rwanda, east Timor and the like…

[The mitzvah of Pidyon shevuyim (freeing captives) is] –probably the single most important value accounting for my defence of political prisoners over the years.

Tzedakah as Justice

  1. Tur YD 247
You should not start thinking, “How can I possibly reduce my wealth by giving to the poor?!” Rather, you should understand that the wealth is not yours, but rather a trust that you must use to carry out the will of the One who has entrusted it to you.
  1. Cecil Roth, Jewish Contribution to Civilization
With this tradition [of charity as justice] in the background it was natural that the Jews should have played a conspicuous part, once they were given the opportunity, in every modern humanitarian movement. Indeed, the western world owes a recognisable part of its charitable organisations and outlook – apart from individual benefactions and personal participation – to Jews.
  1. Giving to Organizations that Help People in Need: Differences Across Denominational Identities, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm
Tobin (2001:7–8) writes: “what distinguishes tzedakah . . . [is that] . . . it is a must, not a should . . . [It] is deeply embedded in Jewish thought and feeling, especially the imperative to provide for basic human needs.”

Neusner (1982:32) writes: “A Jew is someone who participates in tzedakah—and that is the beginning and end of the matter” (see also 1982:28, 68).

A reviewer suggests the Christian philanthropy literature may contain similar statements. While an exhaustive search of the Christian philanthropy literatureis beyond the scope of this article, similar statements are not easily found in the mainstream literature. Giving to help people who are poor is framed not as an imperative, but in terms of a calling/invitation.

For example: “Every Christian is called to practice this charity.” (Pope Benedict XVI 2009) and “I invite you to take the following Generous Christian’s pledge” (Sider 1999). Jackson (2003) reaches the same conclusion, writing that “private charity is now frequently thought admirable but morally optional.

The Primacy of Dignity

  1. Rambam, Laws of Gifts to Poor
There are eight degrees of charity…

The highest degree… is that of one who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him in a situation where he can dispense with other people’s aid….

A step below this stands the one who gives alms to the needy in such a way that the giver does not know to whom he gives and the recipient does not know from whom he takes… One example was the Hall of Secrecy in the Temple, where the righteous would place their gift clandestinely and where poor people from noble families could come and secretly help themselves to aid. Close to this is dropping money in a charity box…

One step below is where the giver knows to whom he gives, but the poor person does not know from whom he receives. Thus the great sages would go and secretly put money into poor people’s doorways…

A step lower is the case where the poor person knows from whom he was taking but the giver does not know to whom he is giving. Thus the great sages would tie coins in their scarves, which they would fling over their shoulders, sothat the poor could help themselves without suffering shame.

Lower than this is when someone gives the poor person a gift before he asks.

Lower still is when one gives only after the poor person asks.

Lower than this is one who gives less than is fitting, but does so with a friendly countenance.

The lowest level is one who gives ungraciously.

  1. Rambam, Laws of Gifts to Poor
Even a poor person who is reliant on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.
  1. Rambam, Laws of Gifts to Poor
A person should always exert himself and endure hardship rather than throw himself, as a dependant, on the community. The sagestaught: ‘Make your Sabbath a weekday, sooner than become dependent.’
  1. Oscar Lewis, La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty
A way of life [that helps them cope with] feelings of hopelessness and despair which develop from the realisation of the impossibility of achieving success in terms of the values and goals of the larger society. The poor share certain psychological features – strong feeling of marginality, or helplessness, or dependence… a lack of impulse control, a strong present time orientation with relatively little ability to defer gratification and to plan for the future and a high tolerance for psychological pathology of all sorts.