“Justice, justice you shall pursue,” the Torah instructs (Deuteronomy 16:20). Hundreds of years later, the Talmud taught: “Tzedakah is equal to all the other commandments combined” (Bava Bathra 9b). From Judaism’s perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedakah is acting justly; One who doesn’t is acting unjustly. The word tzedakah derives from the Hebrew word tzedek, “justice.” Performing deeds of justice is perhaps the most important obligation Judaism imposes on the Jew. However, the nature of tzedakah is very different from the idea of charity. The word “charity” suggests benevolence and generosity, a generous action done out of the goodness of one’s heart, or a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due.
In Jewish law a lack of justice is not only mean-spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self-governing, Jews were assessed tzedakah just as everyone today is assessed taxes. It is seen as a religious obligation, which must be performed regardless of financial standing, and must even be performed by poor people. A poor Jew’s tiny donation is as great as the large donation of the wealthiest.
It is believed that all of one’s possessions in this world are G-d’s and we are simply vessels through which they are channeled. Therefore “my” money is not mine at all- I am just holding on to it until I need to pass it on to where it needs to get to. We perform acts of tzedakah as we seek to create a just world.
Now, when we think of tzedakah we usually think of giving money – writing a check, endowing an organization. These are all very necessary and worthy forms of tzedakah, but they are not the only ones. Our tradition also teaches that it isn’t just writing a check that fulfills the mitzvah. Over the centuries, the concept of tzedakah has been expanded to respond to what people saw as immediate problems in their communities. So, for example, when it comes to alleviating poverty, writing a check may not be enough to solve a problem, because money alone is often not the answer. We also need volunteers to deliver meals to the homebound elderly, to provide career counseling, to prevent at-risk youth from getting into deeper trouble, to help with housing, and to help with countless other initiatives.
In ancient times, the Torah was intended for a primarily agricultural economy and addressed tzedakah in agrarian terms. For example, at harvest time, the Torah instructs us to leave crops standing in the corners of fields to allow the poor to reap what they need for survival.
Joseph had a vision about Egypt when preparing for a famine during the years of plenty. He knew the time was fast approaching that all people would need his help. He took care of his own people and all others by planning in advance and creating policies to ensure that all people would get what they needed, and no one would go hungry. As he told his brothers when he revealed himself to them as their long lost brother, “It was to preserve life that G-d sent me here before you.”
However, as time passed and as the economy of the Near East progressed and diversified, 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 when there was no governmental assistance.
The sages shaped post-biblical Judaism and used the word tzedakah for charitable activity. Since tzedakah means “justice” the rabbis viewed social welfare as an economic and social justice matter.
Judaism also teaches that donors benefit from tzedakah as much or more than the poor recipients and this 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.
“I have to admit,” said Joe Baim, member of Congregation B’nai Israel,” I get a thrill when I sign my name on a check to a specific organization or beneficiary.” Baim is known for bringing a wide variety of programs to his community. “I like to support very specific things that will educate and have a direct impact on people,” he added. “There is one other reason I do it, though” he said. “It is to make up for my parents who were barely able to give.”
How we give tzedakah is as important as what we give. “Do not humiliate a beggar,” the Talmud warns us. “God is beside him.” Rabbi Eleazar said, “The reward that is paid for giving charity is directly related to the kindness with which it is given.” 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 empathize with him in his sorrow.” And so our tradition also holds that there are other ways of giving tzedakah besides the straight donation of money.
“Our Social Action Committee is comprised of more than 25 people,” said Jerri Kaplan, chair of University Synagogue’s committee. “Every one of them is dedicated to helping our community in a variety of ways. While many do not have the means to make financial donations, they give of their time, volunteering at the “Someone Cares Soup Kitchen,” driving for Silver Streak (JFFS senior transportation program), raising funds for “Laura’s House” for abused women and conducting drives for “Second Harvest” and, the most recent one, “Give a Gift of Warmth.” Members also mentor students in the Orange County community. “It’s how I was brought up,” said Kaplan, “and, besides, it feels good.”
Gordon and Reta Fishman also learned tzedakah from their families, and when they moved to Orange County they were surprised at the disparate aspects of the Jewish Community. “The Jews from one synagogue didn’t seem to know the Jews from any of the others,” said Fishman. “It was Reta who had the idea of the Chanukah concert,” he added. “What better way to bring people together than through their children.” The Chanukah, concert which featured the cantors and children’s choirs from the Orange County synagogues, ran for ten years. The Israeli Fair followed bringing Jews together from all over the county. “When it comes to tzedakah,” said Fishman, “people who need help and continuing Jewish education are our two priorities. We must give back,” he continued, “so that the Jewish community continues to exist.”
Along these same lines, we have a long tradition of establishing philanthropic organizations, ranging from burial societies to organizations like the Jewish Free Loan Association, which gives interest-free loans to the needy, and students pursuing higher education.
The Allen and Ellie Café at the J is one of Ellie Jaffy’s favorite projects. When she and her late husband Allen lived in Connecticut they were very involved with the Federation (then known as the UJA) and had always supported other projects like hospitals and the performing arts as well. “Naturally,” she said “we continued to do so when we moved out here, but were surprised that the OC Jewish community was not nearly as supportive of Jewish causes as it had been back East. We felt that if Jews don’t support Jews who else is going to do it!”
Jewish involvement in tzedakah based causes has been developed and refined over 4,000 years of cultural heritage and faith. It has been a very important factor in influencing and encouraging individual Jews to speak out on behalf of freedom, compassion, love, peace and justice for all.
Barabara Adler Baim grew up in a small southern town where landowners took advantage of their tenant farmers by forcing them to purchase provisions from the company store which would be counted up at the end of year. The farmers always seemed to owe the same amount they had earned and were thus continually indebted to the landowners. “When food stamps became available,” said Adler-Baim, “the landowners forbade the farmers from using them. My father took them to court and won!” From that point on the famers could purchase their food and needs at other establishments. “That was a great lesson for all of us about tzedakah.”
According to the Talmud and Maimonides there are several levels of giving; the highest is enabling the recipient to become self-reliant, but giving without being asked and giving anonymously are also among the more meritorious.
On Sunday, January 25, Tustin Chabad dedicated its second Torah, given anonymously by a gentleman who confided that, “I’m not very religious, but I am impressed with Rabbi Shuey’s (Eliezrie) sincerity and authenticity.” What motivated him to purchase and donate the Torah? “During the High Holidays when they have to read from different portions of the Torah, I watched as he struggled going back a forth, rolling and unrolling the Torah, so I thought a second Torah would be most beneficial.” When asked why he chose to remain anonymous he said that “perhaps people will be motivated by this act. Besides, Shuey always speaks from his heart and I wanted to do something from my heart.” The Torah is dedicated to the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). “Whenever Shuey speaks about the soldiers he and I become very emotional about them. It makes me very happy that the Torah is dedicated in their honor.”
The obligation to give in Judaism has become much more than a mitzvah; it has become ingrained in the Jewish culture of the people. And regardless of the individual’s personal motivation, we Jews tend to be philanthropic, not only to our Jewish community but to the larger community as well, whether it’s because “that’s what I was taught,” “I saw my parents do it,” or to be blessed to be in a position to give and want to give back – we give. Let us hope we can pass that on to future generations. Α
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.