Jewish Core Value

Tzedakah, meaning both “justice” and “charity”

Pronunciation

Rhymes with “red rocka.” “Tz” is pronounced as in “its.”

In Traditional Jewish Life

The connection between justice and charitable giving is simple: giving to charity (referred to as “giving tzedakah“) promotes justice. As one pamphlet put it, ” ‘Tzedakah’ is usually translated as ‘charity,’ but it comes from the word ‘tzedek‘ meaning justice. Giving tzedaka is not an act of generosity or mercy. It is an act of fairness. It’s not a ‘nice’ thing to do; it’s the right thing to do.”[1]

In the past, many Jewish communities levied tzedakah much as modern governments levy taxes.[2] But there were also plenty of purely voluntary occasions: in Eastern Europe, it was customary for tzedakah to be given on the birth of a child, at a funeral and before the Sabbath. A tzedakah box, also called a pushke, can be used for that purpose. The box may be kept at home as a convenient reminder for family members to give, but some readers may remember the ubiquitous coin boxes for the March of Dimes and similar organizations — which at one time graced the counters of seemingly every place of business. The Jewish community provides similar opportunities for giving tzedakah to the Jewish National Fund and other organizations.

Philanthropy, another form of tzedakah, albeit on a large scale, has also played a prominent role in the Jewish community. The UJA-Federation, founded in 1917, is an example of such an organization. Jewish philanthropy is used for both Jewish and general causes.

Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish sage, enumerated eight levels of tzedakah. The lowest level is giving with a poor attitude, while the highest is enabling the one who receives tzedakah to become self-reliant.[3]

In traditional (not biblical) Jewish thinking, tzedakah along with repentance and prayer can atone for our sins. Of course the, original concept of tzedakah is rooted in Scripture.

Old Testament Basis

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10).

“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

“You shall follow what is altogether just that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:20; sometimes translated more strongly as “Justice, justice, you shall pursue”).

“There is one who scatters, yet increases more; and there is one who withholds more than is right, but it leads to poverty” (Proverbs 11:24).

“He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who honors Him has mercy on the needy” (Proverbs 14:31).

New Testament Teaching

“But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will Himself reward you openly” (Matthew 6:3-4).

“And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil” (Luke 6:34-35).

“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, ‘Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in the livelihood that she had’ (Luke 21:1-4).

“Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed each as anyone had need”  (Acts 4:34-35).

Examples of this core value in Contemporary Jewish Culture

Example of tzedakah boxes, ranging from the simple (see here) to the artistic. For additional examples, search for “tzedakah box” in images.google.com.

See also web sites such as http://www.forward.com/articles/14464/

A contemporary site devoted to Jewish philanthropy:

http://ejewishphilanthropy.com

Temple Beth-El of Great Neck Plans Tzedakah Project

Charity notebook: Volunteers to call on Jews for donations during ‘Super Sunday’ campaign”

Ways to Connect with Your Jewish Friends

Tzedakah is about action, not just talk. Why not put a tzedakah box in your home, either purchased or home-made? Typically it is labeled “tzedakah” in Hebrew. This could be a great way to deal with extra change as well as a conversation starter. For example, if you are having a conversation about spiritual things you might say …

“Did you know that Jesus (and the New Testament) upholds Jewish core values? It talks about tzedakah …”

Jewish High Holy Day Cards (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur):

This fall, send a Jewish New Year card, they will be readily available in stores. Inside wish a Happy New Year, but use the card for friendship-building, not as an occasion to talk about the gospel. Later on, inquire if they attended synagogue on Yom Kippur. As the conversation moves to the ideas of sin and atonement; mention that you learned that in Judaism, repentance, prayer and charity (tzedakah) are believed to atone for sin, but that you believe that these things, while they are good, are not enough according to the Jewish Bible. God sent the Messiah to atone for our sins by his death — maybe the great act of tzedakah of all time.



[1] Jack Abramowitz, “Tzedaka,” available at http://www.ncsy.org/torahononefoot

[2] Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991) p. 512.

[3] See Abramowitz for all eight levels.