WHEN MY SISTER and I were going through our father’s papers after his death, we found numerous receipts for organizations and people he had supported financially. Now, my father was a man of very modest means and on a limited income, but throughout his life he donated to those he wanted to support. Sometimes the gift was as little $10.
And according an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, by Jacqueline DeGroot, “Jewish donors—especially those of modest means—are among the most generous Americans… And many of them make a high proportion of their gifts to causes that have nothing to do with their faith.”
Oh doesn’t it?
As a Jew from a non-traditional Jewish home, though we didn’t follow halacha, tzedakah was a priority in my family.
According to the Jerusalem Talmud, there is no greater mitzvah in Judaism than giving to others. “Tzedakah and acts of kindness are equivalent to all of the mitzvot in the Torah.” This ideal is almost ingrained in our DNA, so that while many Jews don’t study Talmud, gift giving plays a major role in their lives.
The Jewish sages say that tzedakah is the most important of mitzvot. But why? How does one benefit from helping the poor or the sick or any other cause one might chose to support.
Maimonides offers three reasons to be charitable: “it’s a sign of being just, showing that you are the seed of Abraham; it will make others compassionate toward you; and it will bring the redemption of Israel.” While these are probably the main motives for Jewish charity, it is especially true if we point out that redemption of Israel also means repairing the world.
There are 613 commandments in the Torah. As Marty Friedlander points out in an article in Ha’aretz in August of 2015, these 613 “are roughly divided into three – one-third devoted to sanctuary and sacrifices; one-third to commandments specific to life in the Land of Israel; and the remaining third to appropriate interpersonal conduct.”
With the destruction of Temple “the first third essentially ceased to be relevant. When Judea subsequently lost its independence and the focus of Jewish life shifted to the Diaspora, the second third became largely inapplicable.”
Friedlander continues, “Modern Judaism grew out of that changed reality. From an ancient religion with hundreds of laws governing sacrificial rites and agricultural practices, Judaism had to remake itself… The upshot was a strong focus on sustaining community, and giving charity and doing for others became a cardinal element of Jewish life.”
The Torah speaks of ancient times, when the economy was mostly agricultural. Therefor tzedkaah was addressed in agrarian terms. Consider the instruction to “leave the crops in the corners of their fields” during harvest for the poor who could reap the food to enable them to survive.
But as Degroot writes, “As the economy of the Near East changed, rabbis addressed 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 used the word tzedakah for charity. Since the root word of tzedakah means “justice” the rabbis were implying that social welfare was an economic and social justice matter.
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).
Tzedakah become such an integral part of being Jewish that Rabbi Moses Maimonides developed an eight-stage approach to tzedakah giving that asked, “How much should one give? Should giving be done anonymously? What is the ideal form, or amount, of tzedakah?” As it appears on the Jewish Virtual Website, Maimonides defines eight levels of tzedakah, each one higher than the preceding one:
- When donations are given grudgingly.
- When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.
- When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.
- When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.
- Donations when the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor still doesn’t know the specific identity of the recipient.
- Donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.
- Giving assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds, administered by responsible people are also in this category.
- The highest form of charity is to provide virtuous assistance that allows the recipient to become self-sufficient.
Today, tikkun olam in the form of Social Action has become a vital part of the majority of the Jewish community and an integral part of Jewish culture.
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.