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Charity (Tzedakah): What is Tzedakah?

Legend holds that the taciturn President Calvin Coolidge once returned from a church service:

"What did the minister speak about?" his wife asked him.

"Sin," Coolidge responded.

"And what did he say?"

"He was against it."

One might suppose that anyone writing about tzedaka would run into the same sort of difficulty as Coolidge's minister. After all, once one says that giving tzedaka is a good thing, what more remains to be said? Jewish sources reveal that there is a great deal more.

The word tzedaka derives from the Hebrew word tzedek, "justice." Performing deeds of justice is perhaps the most important obligation Judaism imposes on the Jew. "Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue," the Torah instructs (Deuteronomy 16:20). Hundreds of years later, the Talmud taught: "Tzedaka is equal to all the other commandments combined" (Bava Bathra 9b). From Judaism's perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedaka is acting justly; One who doesn't, unjustly. And Jewish law views this lack of justice as not only mean­spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self­governing, Jews were assessed tzedaka just as everyone today is assessed taxes.

The Torah legislated that Jews give 10 percent of their earnings to the poor every third year (Deuteronomy 26:12), and an additional percentage of their income annually (Leviticus 19:9­10). Hundreds of years later, after the Temple was destroyed and the annual tithe levied upon each Jew for the support of the priests and Levites was suspended, the Talmud ordered that Jews were to give at least 10 percent of their annual net earnings to tzedaka (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Laws Concerning Gifts for the Poor," 7:5).

Several years ago, my friend Dennis Prager suggested a hypothetical case, which has since been presented to several thousand Jewish and non­ Jewish high school students:

Suppose two people who have the exact same earnings and expenses are approached by a poor man in desperate need of food and money for his family. The first person, after listening to the man's horrible experiences, cries and then out of the goodness of his heart gives him five dollars. The second person, although concerned, does not cry, and in fact has to rush away. But because his religion commands him to give 10 percent of his income to charity, he gives the poor person a hundred dollars. Who did the better thing­­the person who gave five dollars from his heart, or the one who gave a hundred dollars because his religion commanded it? We discovered that 70 percent to 90 percent of the teenagers we questioned asserted that the person who gave the five dollars from his heart did the better deed.

This response suggests that in secular society, even charity is becoming a somewhat selfish act. Many people care less about the good their money is doing than about how they feel giving it. When we asked these same students who they would think had done the better deed if they were the ones who needed the money, many of them were brought up short. I think Dennis Prager has expressed the issue very well: "Judaism would love you to give 10 percent of your income each year from your heart. It suspects, however, that in a large majority of cases, were we to wait for people's hearts to prompt them to give a tenth of their money away, we would be waiting a very long time. Ergo, Judaism says, Give ten percent-and if your heart catches up, terrific. In the meantime, good has been done."

Because Judaism sees tzedaka as a form of self­taxation rather than as a voluntary donation, the Jewish community regards publicizing donors' gifts in the same spirit as the American practice of asking political candidates to release their tax returns. In both cases, public scrutiny causes people to act more justly.

Characteristic Jewish Teachings on Tzedakah

A. When It's Good to Be a Heretic:

"Everything in God's creation has a purpose," a Hasidic rebbe once told his followers.

"In that case," asked a disciple, "what is the purpose of apikorsus [heresy], of denying that God exists?"

"Apikorsus is indeed purposeful," the rebbe replied. "For when you are confronted by another who is in need, you should imagine that there is no God to help, but that you alone can meet the man's needs."

B. The Highest Level of Tzedaka:

"There are eight degrees of tzedaka, each one superior to the other. The highest degree . . . is one who upholds the hand of a Jew reduced to poverty by handing him a gift or a loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding work for him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will have no need to beg from other people" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor," 7:7).

C. "Tzedaka":

"Tzedaka may not save us, but it makes us worth saving" (Professor Reuven Kimelman, "Tzedaka and Us," rephrasing the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Prayer may not save us, but it makes us worth saving").

D. The Omnipresence of Tzedaka in Traditional Jewish Life:

"Life in the shtetl [the small villages of Eastern Europe] begins and ends with tzedaka. When a child is born, the father pledges a certain amount of money for distribution to the poor. At a funeral the mourners distribute coins to the beggars who swarm the cemetery, chanting, 'Tzedaka saves from death.' At every turn during one's life, the reminder to give is present.... If something good or bad happens, one puts a coin into a box. Before lighting the Sabbath candles, the housewife drops a coin into one of the boxes.... Children are trained to the habit of giving. A father will have his son give alms to the beggar instead of handing them over directly. A child is very often put in charge of the weekly dole at home, when beggars make their customary rounds. The gesture of giving becomes almost a reflex" (Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life Is with People).

Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.