Tzedakah is often translated as charity, but it is much more than this.
The word itself comes from the root tzedek, meaning justice, and so tzedakah is really about the pursuit of justice in this world. One way of achieving this is through charity, and the helping of other people to support themselves and become independent. But it is not done out of the goodness of one’s heart, it is done because it is the right thing to do, the just thing to do.
Tzedakah is so important an action within Judaism that along with prayer and repentance, it gains forgiveness from God for sins and transgressions.
The obligation towards tzedakah in the Tanach
The Torah does not talk about giving charity as such, instead it offers the following instruction in relation to the harvest:
Leviticus 23: 22
‘And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not make clean riddance up to the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest; you shall leave them to the poor, and to the stranger; I am Adonai your God.’
The land is not to be completely harvested, rather there is a religious obligation to leave behind an amount, which can be gathered by the poor and the stranger. This offers us an initial model for the giving of tzedakah.
- How can this be applied in our modern world?
- How big is a corner, and what might this teach us?
Another form of this instruction is also given:
‘When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow – in order that Adonai your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.’
This instruction further develops the idea that some produce should be left behind for people who are in need. In the modern day drive for efficiency and productivity, this approach may appear counterintuitive, but it offers us a way to ensure that a contribution is made to those in need.
- What are the benefits of this approach to tzedakah?
- Are there ways that modern businesses and companies can also do this?
The instruction to help others is specified further:
‘If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that Adonai your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he is lacking.’
There appears to be an expectation that people should be helping the poor, in part because any of our wealth comes from God, and it is our obligation to assist with its redistribution.
- How can this instruction be fulfilled?
- What is the significance of the imagery of an open or closed hand?
All of this may be considered under the broader instruction of pursuing justice:
‘Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which Adonai your God gives you.’
The pursuit of justice is a command from God, with an idea that continued survival on the land will only come about as a result of fulfilment of this command. Without justice there is no survival on the land.
- What is the relationship between for you between giving tzedakah and justice?
- How will the pursuit of justice ensure inheritance of the land?
How to give tzedakah
Maimonides (RAMBAM) offers us a ladder for the giving of tzedakah:
- One who gives grudgingly, reluctantly or with regret.
- One who gives less than should be given, but gives graciously.
- One who gives correctly, but only after being asked.
- One who gives before being asked.
- One who gives without knowing who receives the gift, although the receiver knows who has given.
- One who gives without making themselves known, but knows the receiver.
- One who gives without knowing who receives the gift, and the receiver doesn’t know who has given.
- One who helps another to support themselves by a gift or a loan by finding them a job, because in this way the receiver is helped to become self-supporting.
Maimonides’ ladder shows that the giving of tzedakah is more complicated than simply giving money, there are ways in which the money can be given, which define the level of tzedakah achieved.
- What are examples from the contemporary world of the different levels of tzedakah?
- What does this ladder teach about the relationships between givers and receivers?
Sources and Resources:
- Tzedakah at the My Jewish Learning website including a bibliography and further discussion
- Insights on tzedakah from the Union for Reform Judaism’s IWorship Wisdom initiative.