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Tzedakah: More than Charity

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Reaching out to those in need is central to Jewish being. Jews are commanded to give at least ten percent of their net income to charity. Tzedakah boxes for collecting coins for those in need can be found in central places in Jewish homes. It is common to see Jewish youth, in Israel and in the Diaspora, going door-to-door to collect money for worthy causes.

Obligated to Give

Tzedakah literally means righteousness in Hebrew. In the bible, tzedakah is used to refer to justice, kindness, ethical behavior and the like. In post-biblical Hebrew, tzedakah refers to charity, giving to those in need.

The words justice and charity have different meanings in English. How is it that in Hebrew, one word, tzedakah, has been translated to mean both justice and charity?

This translation is consistent with Jewish thought as Judaism considers charity to be an act of justice. Judaism holds that people in need have a legal right to food, clothing and shelter that must be honored by more fortunate people. According to Judaism, it is unjust and even illegal for Jews to not give charity to those in need.

Thus, giving charity in Jewish law and tradition is viewed as obligatory self­-taxation, rather than voluntary donation.

Importance of Giving

According to one ancient sage, charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments combined.

The High Holiday prayers state that God has inscribed a judgment against all who have sinned, but teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah can reverse the decree.

The duty to give is so important in Judaism that even recipients of charity are obligated to give something. However, people should not give to the point where they themselves become needy.

Guidelines for Giving

The Torah and Talmud provide Jews with guidelines on the how, what and when of giving to the poor. The Torah commanded Jews to give ten percent of their earnings to the poor every third year (Deuteronomy 26:12) and an additional percentage of their income annually (Leviticus 19:9­10). After the Temple was destroyed, the annual tithe levied upon each Jew for support of the Temple priests and their assistants was suspended. The Talmud instructed Jews to give at least ten percent of their annual net income to tzedakah (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Laws Concerning Gifts for the Poor," 7:5).

Maimonides devotes ten chapters in his Mishneh Torah to instructions on how to give to the poor. He describes eight different levels of tzedakah according to their degree of merit. He asserts that the most meritorious level of charity is helping someone to become self-supporting.

One can fulfill the obligation to give tzedakah by giving money to the poor, to health care institutions, to synagogues or to educational institutions. Supporting grown children and elderly parents is also a form of tzedakah. The obligation to give tzedakah includes giving to both Jews and gentiles.

Beneficiaries: Recipient, Donor, World

According to Jewish tradition, the spiritual benefit of giving charity is so great that the giver benefits even more than the recipient. By giving charity, Jews recognize the good that God has given to them. Some scholars see charitable donation as a replacement for animal sacrifice in Jewish life in that it is a way to show thanks to and ask forgiveness from God. Contributing toward the welfare of others is a central and fulfilling part of one's Jewish identity.

Jews have a mandate to improve the world in which they live (tikkun olam). Tikkun olam is achieved through the performance of good deeds. The Talmud states that the world rests on three things: Torah, service to God, and deeds of kindness (gemilut hasadim).

Tzedakah is a good deed that is made in partnership with God. According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the word tzedakah comes from the word tzedek, which means righteous. The only difference between the two words is the Hebrew letter "hey", which represents the Divine name. Kabbalists explain that tzedakah is a partnership between the righteous and God, acts of tzedakah are permeated with God's goodness, and giving tzedakah can make the world a better place.

As the United Jewish Communities (UJC) collects funds for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the philanthropic nature of American Jewry, derived from Judaism's emphasis on doing of good deeds and caring for those in need, is being affirmed.
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