Tzedakah and the Jewish Tradition of Giving

In a sermon before Christmas, Rev. Karen Graham introduced me to the concept of Tzedakah.  I had never heard of the term and misspelled it until I looked it up.  Tzedakah is related to the Hebrew word for justice.  In the Jewish tradition, giving to the poor is a form of social justice.  The website “Learning to Give” has a very good discussion of Tzedakah:

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”.

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.

In keeping with this cheerful giver idea, Rabbi Moses Maimonides developed an eight-stage approach to tzedakah in the 12th century, called The Ladder of Tzedakah.

On an ascending level, they are as follows:

8. When donations are given grudgingly.

7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.

6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.

5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.

4. Donations when the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor still doesn’t know the specific identity of the recipient.

3. Donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.

2. 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.

1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

I don’t know about you, but I have two different giving levels, and neither one of them is the highest form.  Usually, I give at level #2, because I give a regular amount to the church which uses the communal funds to help the poor or work for social justice.  My impulse giving is usually at level #6, when a particular appeal catches my eye.  It seems like you need more money than I have if you desire to give at the highest level, but maybe you just need like-minded people to band together.

I like how Tzedakah is tied to social justice in the Jewish tradition.  One of the sayings connected to this idea is that “Tzedakah is giving that repairs the world.”  What a beautiful idea!  Giving and healing tied up together.  There is justice when the poor have enough to sustain themselves and attain a better life.  Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”  Knowing that there will always be poor people is no excuse to ignore them.  Instead, it is an opportunity to act justly toward the world.

I am thankful that we love and follow a God who gives to us generously and without restraint.  I pray that my heart will be generous and open to give, not only to those in need, but in a way that increases justice in the world.