Definitions

Tzedakah

Tzedakah

[Seph. tsuh-dah-kah; Ashk. tsuh-daw-kuh]
Tzedakah (צדקה) is a Hebrew word commonly translated as charity, though it is based on a root meaning justice (צדק, tzedek). In Judaism, tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to perform charity, and philanthropic acts, which Judaism emphasises are important parts of living a spiritual life; Jewish tradition argues that the second highest form of tzedakah is to anonymously give donations to unknown recipients. Unlike philanthropy, which is completely voluntary, tzedakah is seen as a religious obligation, which must be performed regardless of financial standing, and must even be performed by poor people; tzedakah is considered to be one of the three main acts that can annul a less than favorable heavenly decree.

In rabbinical literature of the classical and Middle Ages

In classical rabbinical literature, it was argued that the Biblical regulations concerning left-overs only applied to corn fields, orchards, and vineyards, and not to vegetable gardens; the classical rabbinical writers were much stricter in regard to who could receive the remains. It was stated that the farmer was not permitted to benefit from the gleanings, and was not permitted to discriminate among the poor, nor try to frighten them away with dogs or lions; the farmer was not even allowed to help one of the poor to gather the left-overs. However, it was also argued that the law was only applicable in Canaan, although many classical rabbinical writers who were based in Babylon observed the laws there; it was also seen as only applying to Jewish paupers, but poor non-Jews were allowed to benefit for the sake of civil peace

Despite the narrowness of the law's interpretation, it was perceived as encouraging charity; giving anonymously to an unknown recipient came to be considered the second highest form of tzedakah, since the regulation allows the poor to gather food in a dignified manner, rather than having to beg for it. Maimonides was driven to enumerate the forms of charity, from the greatest to the most weak:

  1. Giving a person independence so that s/he will not have to depend on tzedakah. Maimonides enumerates four forms of this, from the greatest to the weakest:
    1. Giving a poor person work.
    2. Making a partnership with him or her (this is lower than work, as the recipient might feel he doesn't put enough into the partnership).
    3. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need.
    4. Giving a grant to a person in need.
  2. Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person (or public fund) which is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
  3. Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient.
  4. Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.
  5. Giving tzedakah before being asked.
  6. Giving adequately after being asked.
  7. Giving willingly, but inadequately.
  8. Giving "in sadness" - it is thought that Maimonides was referring to giving because of the sad feelings one might have in seeing people in need (as opposed to giving because it is a religious obligation).

In practice

In practice, most Jews carry out tzedakah by donating a portion of their income to charitable institutions, or to needy people that they may encounter; the perception among many modern day Jews is that if donation of this form is not possible, the obligation of tzedakah still requires that something is given. Special acts of tzedakah are performed on significant days; at weddings, Jewish brides and bridegrooms would traditionally give to charity, to symbolise the sacred character of the marriage; at Passover, a major holiday in Jewish tradition, it is traditional to be welcoming towards hungry strangers, and feed them at the table; at Purim it is considered obligatory for every Jew to give food to two other people, in an amount that would equate to a meal each, for the purpose of increasing the total happiness during the month.

As for the more limited form of tzedakah expressed in the biblical laws, namely the leaving of gleanings from certain crops, the Shulchan Aruch argues that Jewish farmers are no longer obliged to obey it. Nevertheless, in modern Israel, rabbis of Orthodox Judaism insist that Jews allow gleanings to be consumed by the poor and by strangers, and all crops (not just gleanings) by anyone and everyone (free, not bought nor sold) during Sabbatical years.

In addition, one must be very careful about how one gives out tzedakah money. It is not sufficient to just give to anyone or any organization, rather, one must check the credentials and finances to be sure that your Tzedakah money will be used wisely, efficiently and effectively. We learn this from both the Bible (Proverbs 22:22 - Do not steal from a poor person, for s/he is poor) and from Talmudic-era commentaries including Numbers Rabba 5:2. It is taught that Tzedakah money was never yours to begin with, rather, it always belongs to the recipient, and hence you have an obligation to give it AND to give it away to places that use it efficiently and effectively.

See also

References

Bibliography

  • Rabbi Wayne Dossick, Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition, and Practice., pages 249-251.

External links

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