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The obligation to help the poor and the needy and to give them gifts is stated many times in the Bible and was considered by the rabbis of all ages to be one of the cardinal mitzvot of Judaism.

In the Bible

The Bible itself legislates several laws which are in effect a sort of tax for the benefit of the poor. Among these are *leket, shikhḥah, and pe'ah as well as the special tithe for the poor (see *ma'aser). The institution of the sabbatical year (see *Sabbatical Year and Jubilee) was in order "that the poor of the people may eat" (Ex. 23: 11) as well as to cancel debts about which the warning was given: "If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother; but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth. Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart, saying 'The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand'; and thine eye be evil against thy needy brother and thou give him nought; and he say unto the Lord against thee and it be sin in thee. Thou shalt surely give him, and thy heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him; because that for this thing the Lord thy God will bless thee in all thy work…." (Deut. 15:7–10). The Pentateuch also insists that the needy be remembered when the festivals are celebrated, e.g., "And thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless and the widow that are in the midst of thee" (16:11, 14). The Bible expects Israel to be aware of the needs of the poor and the stranger (who is considered to be in an inferior economic position) because Israel itself had experienced this situation in Egypt: "Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (10:19) and promises "for this thing the Lord thy God will bless thee in all thy work and in all that thou puttest thy hand unto" (15:10).

Charity is an attribute of God Himself: "For the Lord your God, He is God of gods, and Lord of lords.… He doth execute justice for the fatherless and widow and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment" (10:17, 18), a theme which was developed at considerable length by the psalmist (cf. Ps. 145:15, 16; 132:15). Both the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel considered charity as an indispensable requirement for a life of piety. Indeed, Isaiah proclaims that the "acceptable day to the Lord" is not the fast which only consists of afflicting the soul and wearing sackcloth and ashes, but rather the day on which bread is dealt to the hungry, the poor that are cast out are brought into the house, and the naked clothed (Is. 58:5–7); Ezekiel (16:49) attributes the destruction of Sodom to its lack of charity, "neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy." "A woman of valor" is one who "stretcheth out her hand to the poor; Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy" (Prov. 31:20). Charity to the poor is equated with "lending to the Lord, and his good deed will He repay unto him" (ibid., 19: 17). The virtue of charity and the fact that it deserves reward from God are stressed over and over in the arguments in the book of Job (22:5–9; 29:12, 13). Following the precedent in the Pentateuch, the book of Esther (9:12) makes sending gifts to the poor a part of the new festival it inaugurates (Purim), and when Ezra and Nehemiah taught the people anew the meaning of Rosh Ha-Shanah, they told them, "Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared" (Neh. 8:10).

In the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

Although the idea of charity and almsgiving is spread throughout the whole of the Bible, there is no special term for it. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, adopted the word צְדָקָה (ẓedakah) for charity, and it is used (but not exclusively so) throughout rabbinic literature in the sense of helping the needy by gifts. It has been suggested that the word ẓedakah in this sense already appears in Daniel (4:24) and in the Apocrypha (Ben Sira 3:30; 7:10 and Tobit 4:7; 12:8–9); in some of the verses the context would seem to bear out such a supposition. All this indicates, however, is that the term had come into use in the post-biblical period; in Talmud times it was entirely accepted to the extent that the rabbis interpreted biblical passages where the word certainly does not mean charity in the sense of their own usage. The word has since passed into popular usage and is almost exclusively used for charity. The term חֶסֶד (ḥesed, "loving-kindness"), which is used widely in the Bible, has taken on the meaning of physical aid, or lending without interest (see *gemilut ḥasadim).


The word ẓedakah literally means "righteousness" or "justice"; by their very choice of word the rabbis reveal a great deal of their attitude toward the subject, for they see charity not as a favor to the poor but something to which they have a right, and the donor, an obligation. In this way they teach "The poor man does more for the householder (in accepting alms) than the householder does for the poor man (by giving him the charity)" (Lev. R. 34:8) for he gives the householder the opportunity to perform a mitzvah. This attitude stemmed from the awareness that all men's possessions belong to God and that poverty and riches are in His hand. This view is aptly summed up in Avot (3:8): "Give unto Him of what is His, seeing that thou and what thou hast are His" and is further illustrated in a story told of *Rava. A poor man came before Rava who asked him what he usually had for his meal. The man replied, "Fatted chicken and old wine." "But do you not" said Rava "feel worried that you are a burden on the community?" "Do I eat what is theirs?" said the man, "I eat what is God's" (exegesis to Ps. 145:15). At that point Rava's sister brought him a gift of a fatted chicken and some old wine which Rava understood to be an omen and apologized to the poor man (Ket. 67b).

The importance the rabbis attached to the mitzvah of ẓedakah can be understood from R. Assi who stated that "ẓedakah is as important as all the other commandments put together" (BB 9a) and from R. Eleazar who expounded the verse "To do righteousness (ẓedakah) and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice" (Prov. 21:3) to mean that charity is greater than all the sacrifices (Suk. 49b). Ẓedakah, to the rabbis, hastens redemption (BB 10a), ensures that the doer will have wise, wealthy, and learned sons (BB 19b), and atones for sins (BB 9a). Giving charity is the way in which man can "walk after the Lord your God" (Deut. 13:5) and be saved from death (Prov. 1:2). Together with Torah and service (i.e., prayer), the practice of charity is one of the pillars on which the world rests (Avot 1:2). Giving charity does not impoverish and not giving is tantamount to idolatry (Ket. 68a). Charity is an act of devotion and a complement to prayer; as such, the wise give charity just before praying as it is written, "and I, in righteousness (ẓedek) will see Thy face" (Ps. 17:15; BB 9a).

Since ẓedakah is considered a biblical commandment the rabbis found it necessary – as in the case of every other mitzvah – to define it in minute detail, e.g., who is obligated to give, who is eligible to receive, how much should be given and in what manner. These laws are scattered throughout the Talmud and were codified by Maimonides in his Yad in Hilkhot Mattenot Aniyyim, the first six chapters of which deal with the laws of leket, shikḥah, and pe'ah, and the last four, with the general laws of charity. In the Tur and Shulḥan Arukh, the laws are codified in Yoreh De'ah 247–59.


Everybody is obliged to give charity; even one who himself is dependent on charity should give to those less fortunate than himself (Git. 7a). The court can compel one who refuses to give charity – or donates less than his means allow – to give according to the court's assessment. The recalcitrant can even be flogged, and should he still refuse to give, the court may appropriate his property in the assessed sum for charity (Ket. 49b; Maim. Yad., Mattenot Aniyyim 7:10).

For the purposes of charity, a poor man is one who has less than 200 zuz (200 dinar – each of which coins is the equivalent of 96 barley grains – of a mixture of ⅞ bronze and ⅛ silver). This sum is the criterion if it is static capital (i.e., not being used in business); if, however, it is being used, the limit is 50 zuz (ibid., 9:13). A man with more than these sums is not entitled to take leket, shikhḥah, and pe'ah, the poor man's tithe or charity – and he who does will be reduced to real poverty (ibid., 10:19). Charity should be dispensed to the non-Jewish poor in order to preserve good relations; however, charity should not be accepted from them unless it is entirely unavoidable. Women take precedence over men in receiving alms, and one's poor relatives come before strangers. The general rule is "the poor of your own town come before the poor of any other town," but this rule is lifted for the poor of Ereẓ Israel who take precedence over all (Sh. Ar., YD 251:3). A traveler in a strange town who is out of funds is considered to be poor and may take charity even though he has money at home. When he returns to his home, he is not obliged to repay the charity he has taken (Pe'ah 5:4). A man is not obliged to sell his household goods to maintain himself but is eligible for charity (Pe'ah 8:8); even if he owns land, houses, or other property, he is not required to sell them at a disadvantage if the prices are lower than usual (BK 7a–b). It is permitted to deceive a poor man who, out of pride, refuses to accept charity, and to allow him to think that it is a loan; but a miser who refuses to use his own means is to be ignored (Ket. 67b).


To give a tenth of one's wealth to charity is considered to be a "middling" virtue, to give a 20th or less is to be "mean"; but in Usha the rabbis determined that one should not give more than a fifth lest he become impoverished himself and dependent on charity (Ket. 50a; Maim. Yad., loc. cit., 7:5). The psychological needs of the poor should be taken into consideration even though they may appear to be exaggerated. Thus a once wealthy man asked Hillel for a horse and a runner to go before him, which Hillel supplied; on another occasion, when Hillel could not afford to hire a runner for him, Hillel acted as one himself (Ket. 67a). This attitude is based on the interpretation of the verse "thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him … for his need which he wanteth" (Deut. 15:8), the accent being on "his" and "he"; however, on the basis of the same verse, the rabbis taught that "you are required to maintain him but not to enrich him," stressing the word "need" (Ket. 67a). "We must be more careful about charity than all the other positive mitzvot because ẓedakah is the criterion of the righteous (ẓaddik), the seed of Abraham, as it is written 'For I have singled him [Abraham] out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just [ẓedakah; Gen. 18:19]' … and Israel will only be redeemed by merit of charity, as it is written 'Zion shall be redeemed with justice, And they that return of her with righteousness [ẓedakah'; Isa. 1:17]'" (Maim. Yad, loc. cit. 10:1).


This appreciation of the importance of charity led the rabbis to be especially concerned about the manner in which alms are to be dispensed. The prime consideration is that nothing be done that might shame the recipient. "R. Jonah said: It is not written 'Happy is he who gives to the poor,' but "Happy is he who considers the poor' (Ps. 41:2): i.e., he who ponders how to fulfill the command to help the poor. How did R. Jonah act? If he met a man of good family who had become impoverished he would say, 'I have heard that a legacy has been left to you in such a place; take this money in advance and pay me back later.' When the man accepted it he then said to him, 'It is a gift'" (TJ, Pe'ah 8:9, 21b). When R. Yannai saw someone giving a zuz to a poor man in public, he said, "It were better not to have given rather than to have given him and shamed him" (Ḥag. 5a). Out of consideration for the sensibilities of the poor, the rabbis considered the best form of almsgiving to be that in which neither the donor nor the recipient knew each other: "Which is the ẓedakah which saves from a strange death? That in which the giver does not know to whom he has given nor the recipient from whom he has received" (BB 10a), and R. Eliezer saw the "secret" giver as being greater than Moses (BB 9b). Stories are told throughout the Talmud illustrating this principle and relating how the pious devised ingenious methods of giving alms so as to remain anonymous (Ket. 67b.; Ta'an. 21b–22a, et al.). For the same reason, it is important to receive the poor in good humor, and even if one cannot afford to give, one must at least appease the poor with words (Lev. R. 34:15; Maim Yad loc. cit. 10:5).

Maimonides (Yad, loc. cit. 10:7–12) lists eight ways of giving ẓedakah which are progressively more virtuous: to give (1) but sadly; (2) less than is fitting, but in good humor; (3) only after having been asked to; (4) before being asked; (5) in such a manner that the donor does not know who the recipient is; (6) in such a manner that the recipient does not know who the donor is; and (7) in such a way that neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other. The highest form of charity is not to give alms but to help the poor to rehabilitate themselves by lending them money, taking them into partnership, employing them, or giving them work, for in this way the end is achieved without any loss of self-respect at all.


"In every town where there are Jews they must appoint 'charity wardens' [gabba'ei ẓedakah], men who are well-known and honest that they should collect money from the people every Sabbath eve and distribute it to the poor.… We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which does not have a charity fund" (Yad, loc. cit. 9:1–3). Because the charity warden was involved in the collection and distribution of public funds, special care was taken to ensure that there should not be even the slightest suspicion of dishonesty. The actual collection had to be made by at least two wardens who were not permitted to leave each other during the course of it. The distribution of the money was to be made by at least three wardens in whose hands lay the decision as to whom to give and how much. Besides money, food and clothing were also distributed. It seems that the poor were registered with the fund and mendicants who went from door to door begging were not to be given any sizable sums (BB 9a); the fund did, however, supply the needs of strangers. Apart from maintaining the poor, the fund was also used for redeeming captives and dowering poor brides, both of which were considered to be among the most virtuous of acts. In addition to the fund (kuppah), there were also communal soup kitchens (*tamḥui) at which any person with less than enough for two meals was entitled to eat (Yad, loc. cit. 9:13).

Collecting and distributing charity is to some extent distasteful work and at times even humiliating. In order to encourage men to undertake it, the rabbis interpreted several scriptural verses as extolling the wardens who are considered to be "eternal stars" and greater even than the givers (BB 8a, 9a). R. Yose, however, prayed "May my lot be with those who collect charity rather than with those who distribute it" (Shab. 118b), apparently preferring the risk of humiliation to that of misjudgment.

Charity is a form of vow, and a promise to give must be fulfilled immediately (Yad, loc. cit. 8:1). Generally speaking, the charity money must be used for the purpose for which it was given, and it is forbidden to divert the funds to some other cause. For a more detailed discussion, see *Hekdesh.


When necessary, accepting charity is perfectly legitimate and no shame attaches itself to the poor who are otherwise unable to support themselves. However, one is advised to do everything in one's power to avoid having to take alms: "Make your Sabbath a weekday (by not eating special food or wearing good clothes) rather than be dependent on other people" (Pes. 112a); and, "Even a wise and honored man should do menial work (skinning unclean animals) rather than take charity" (Pes. 113a). The greatest of the sages did physical labor in order to support themselves and remain independent. "A person who is really entitled to take charity but delays doing so and so suffers rather than be a burden to the community will surely be rewarded and not die before he reaches a position in which he will be able to support others. About such a person was it written: 'Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord' (Jer. 17:7)" (Yad, loc. cit. 10:18).


IN BIBLE AND TALMUD: C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), chap. 16; EM, 5 (1968), 674 f.; ET, 6 (1954), 149–53. MEDIEVAL AND MODERN TIMES: AJYB; Baron, Community, index; B. Bogen, Jewish Philanthropy (1917); I. Levitats, Jewish Community in Russia (1943); J. Bergman, Ha-Ẓedakah be-Yisrael (1944); J. Marcus, Communal Sick-Care in the German Ghetto (1947); Neuman, Spain, 2 (1948), 161–81; V.D. Lipman, A Century of Social Service: The Jewish Board of Guardians (1959); Chipkin, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews, 2 (19603), 1043–75; H. Lurie, A Heritage Affirmed: The Jewish Federation Movement (1961); R. Morris and M. Freund (eds.), Trends and Issues in Jewish Social Welfare in the United States, 1899–1952 (1966).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.