The Concept of Tzedakah
Tzedakah is the responsibility to give aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy, or to worthwhile causes. Tzedakah means being good stewards of and planning to give a portion of one’s personal substance for the common good. Althought it is related to charity, the translation of tzedakah is broader than the definition of charity. Charity suggests benevolence and generosity, an act of the powerful and wealthy for the benefit of the poor and needy. Tzedakah is derived from the Hebrew language and means righteousness, fairness or justice. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous act; it is simply an act of justice, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due (Judaism 101 1999). It is the right thing to do.
Great scholars are often quoted in many writings regarding tzedakah. Sages are the greatest Jewish minds of all times. A famous medieval Jewish scholar was Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon; his writings are called the Maimonidies (ibid).
At the end of every Jewish worship service, the Aleinu prayer states a goal of the Jewish people to “perfect the world under the sovereignty of God.” The term “perfect the world” in Hebrew is tikkun olam , which also means to fix or repair the world. The Torah claims “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11) (United Jewish Communities 2004).
In ancient times, the Hebrew Torah was intended for a primarily agricultural economy and addressed the tzedakah in agrarian terms. For example, at harvest time, the Torah instructs believers to leave crops standing in the corners of fields to allow the poor to reap needed food for survival.
However, as the economy of the Near East diversified, rabbis addressed the tzedakah in financial terms. Public and private funds were created to help support people in need. Food banks and soup kitchens were developed at a time of no governmental assistance.
The sages shaped post-biblical Judaism and used the word tzedakah for charitable activity. The root word of tzedakah means “justice” and implies the rabbis viewed social welfare as an economic and social justice matter.
Tzedakah is more than giving money to the poor. Done properly, tzedakah requires the donor share his or her compassion and empathy along with the money. In the writings 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 emphasize with him in his sorrow” (Just Tzedakah 1998).
Tzedakah has two aspects: one with the hand and one with the heart. Judaism teaches the belief that donors benefit from tzedakah as much or more than the poor recipients and the belief remains a common theme in Jewish tradition. Whereas the poor receive money or other material assistance, the donor receives the merit of sharing the Almighty’s work. Accordingly, tzedakah involves giving assistance with the hand and consolation with the mouth so the heart is without embitterment. The donor should give with a pleasant expression and with a full heart and the beggar should not hear rebuke