Definition of Tzedakah (pronounced tsu-dah-kah)
Any student of linguistics will tell you that there is more to a word than just how it sounds. Tzedakah is an example of a word which encapsulates its philosophy, value and meanings in the very construction of the word. The word “tzedakah” is derived from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. Thus, tzedakah cannot be merely translated to mean what we call in English “charity”. Charity is derived from the Latin word caritas, which means “love.” It is defined as giving aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes. The word charity suggests a generous voluntary act by the wealthy for the poor and needy. In contrast, tzedakah, in the very way the word has been constructed, suggests that it is an act of justice to give to the needy, an obligation and responsibility by the wealthy, a means to pursue social and economic justice and in so doing trying to create a more perfect world.
Philosophy of Tzedakah
Jews regard the One God as the Creator and Sustainer of the entire Universe. Humans are merely the guarantors of the earth and the possessions which it contains. No one person can claim ownership of any earthly possession. Thus, it does not matter that the limited resources provided to people by God have been distributed unevenly in the earth. Some nations (or people) were given a greater share and some a lesser share. But since all are created equally in the image of God, there is a duty that devolves upon the “haves” to give of their substance to the “have-nots” in order to effect justice. This is tzedakah. It is a way of looking at the world and understanding the human role in creating a more perfect world—and by doing so, imitating qualities of the Divine.
A midrashic anecdote can be used to illustrate this point. The Roman Governor, Turnus Rufus1, puts the question to Rabbi Akiba:
‘“If, as you maintain, your God loves the poor, why does he not make them rich?” to which Akiba replies: “It is in order to give the rich the means of acquiring merit,” a quaint way of coping with the theological problem of why a beneficent God has created a world in which people suffer. A world without poverty would be an uncaring world; without those to whom compassion must be shown it would be a world without com-passion.”’
It is interesting to also study the attitude towards the poor in Judaism. In Judaism the under-privileged are not to be blamed for their condition. In fact the Hebrew prophets held that social injustice is the cause of poverty and has even led to the destruction of cities and civilizations. Prophet Ezekiel(as) attributed the destruction of Sodom to its lack of charity. Under Jewish law, the poor have the right to receive tzedakah, and according to the Talmud, the donors also benefit as they have been given the opportunity to perform a Biblical command-ment. This attitude is based on the belief that all earthly possessions belong to God and that one’s own worth is measured in righteous commandments performed, not in material goods.
To highlight this two-way flow of benefit, the Jerusalem Talmud records that in ancient Palestine when asking for help a poor man would say to his would-be benefactor: “Acquire merit for yourself,” as if to say: “I am doing you a favour.”
Importance of Tzedakah
Giving to the poor is an obligation in Judaism, a duty that cannot be forsaken even by those who are themselves in need. The Talmud teaches that the poor should not be denied the feelings of joy and self-esteem that derive from performing the command-ment of tzedakah. As the Talmud states; “When a person gives even a perutah (the smallest coin) he or she is privileged to sense God’s presence.”
Some sages have said that tzedakah is the highest of all commandments, equal to all of them combined, and that a person who does not perform tzedakah is equivalent to an idol worshiper. According to Jewish law you are required to give 1/10 of your income to the poor; Jew or Gentile. The Torah and Talmud provide Jews with guidelines on the how, what and when of giving to the poor. Tzedakah is also seen as one of the three acts that gain forgiveness from sins.
However, it is more than just giving money. If conducted properly tzedakah requires that the donor share his or her compassion and empathy along with the money. In the words of Maimonides,
‘…Whoever gives tzedakah to the poor with a sour expression and in a surly manner, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces, loses his merit. One should instead give cheerfully and joyfully, and empathize with him in his sorrow as it is said, (Job 30:25) “Did I not cry for him whose day is difficult? Did my soul not grieve for the poor?” Speak to him with compassion and comfort as it is said (Job 29:13) “And I gladden the heart of the widow.”’
(Laws of Gifts to the Poor, Ch.10)
Levels of Tzedakah?
Whilst the Bible emphasises the caring of the widow, orphan and the stranger in the process of refining the laws pertaining to charity, the Rabbis of the Talmud determined that preference was to be given to women over men and one’s poor relatives over strangers.
Maimonides, a renowned scholar of the Torah, was driven to enumerate the forms of charity, from the greatest to the most weak which are listed as follows2:
1. Giving a person inde-pendence so that s/he will not have to depend on tzedakah. Maimonides enumerates four forms of this, from the greatest to the weakest:
(a) Giving a poor person work.
(b) Making a partnership with him or her (this is lower than work, as the recipient might feel he doesn’t put enough into the partner-ship).
(c) Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need.
(d) Giving a grant to a person in need.
2. Giving tzedakah anony-mously to an unknown reci-pient via a person (or public fund) which is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
3. Giving tzedakah anony-mously to a known recipient.
4. Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.
5. Giving tzedakah before being asked.
6. Giving adequately after being asked.
7. Giving willingly, but inadequately.
8. Giving “in sadness”.
- Of second-century CE Palestine
- Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14 by Dr. Meir Tamari