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Tzedakah - Charity or Righteousness

Tzedakah - Charity or Righteousness

What is your greatest pleasure in life? Most people will initially think of physical pleasures -- those that can be obtained through the 5 senses. Given a few moments of reflections, many people will shift to more ethereal pleasures -- particularly the joy of a good marriage and if not, at least the joy of children and grandchildren.

A cigar smoker once asked me, "Do you know the greatest pleasure a cigar smoker has?" Without stopping for a response, he continued, "The joy of giving a good cigar to someone. If you smoke it, you have the pleasure of that cigar for an hour or two. However, if you give it to someone to enjoy, you have that pleasure forever." Of course, many people who find cigars unpleasant, disgusting and revolting will have difficulty with even considering this analogy, so I will focus on pleasures that we can all enjoy.

There is an old Jewish saying, "Money doesn't solve all problems, but it sure makes being poor easier." We strive to earn money to cover our expenses. It is not unusual that as we have "extra" money that we will strive for nicer things -- homes, cars, clothing, jewelry, art ... We acquire possessions which we hopefully enjoy, but when the time comes for downsizing, we find that no one wants our precious things. It could be that they are called possessions, not because we possess them, but that they possess us...

Things don't make us happy. Happiness and pleasure comes from focusing on what you have. If you don't appreciate what you have, you won't appreciate what you get.

Strangely enough, what can give us the greatest pleasure in life is not what we physically have, but what we have when we take from our earnings and possessions and give away. How we help others gives our lives meaning and happiness -- and brings us closer to the Almighty. It also gives us great merit in this world for health and success and for the eternal pleasure in the next World. This is the mitzvah of Tzedakah.

"Tzedakah" is often translated as "charity". The correct translation is "righteousness". It is not merely a charitable act to give to the poor; it is the obligation of every single person. There are many mitzvot (commandments) that come under the classification of Tzedakah and ultimately all of the mitzvot come under the commandment to emulate the Almighty. Just as the Almighty takes care of us though we are less than perfect, likewise we are commanded to take care of humanity -- not just with our money, but with our time and effort.

Maimonides enumerates Eight Levels of Tzedakah (from highest level to lowest):

  1. Give a present, lend him money, take him as a partner, find him work before he needs to ask for charity.

  2. Give charity where neither the giver nor the receiver know the identity of the other.

  3. Give where the donor knows the recipient's identity, but the recipient is unaware of the donor's name.

  4. Give where the recipient knows the donor's identity, but the donor does not know who is the recipient.

  5. Give before being asked.

  6. Give after being asked.

  7. The donor gives less than he should, but with a pleasant countenance.

  8. The donor gives begrudgingly, but does not express this to the recipient. The Code of Jewish Law (Yorah Daiah 249:3) states that if a person outwardly shows his displeasure, he loses the merit of giving.

What is the source of the mitzvah of Tzedakah? The Torah states, "If there be amongst you a needy man from amongst your brethren within any of your gates in your land which the Eternal your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand from your needy brother. You must definitely open your hand to him, and must definitely lend him on pledge sufficient for the needs in which he is lacking" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

How much of one's income should go to charity? One is obligated to give a tenth of his income to charity. It is meritorious to give a fifth (Yorah Daiah 249:1). There are many examples of giving ma'aser (a tenth or tithe) in the Torah. Abraham gave Malkiezdek one-tenth of all his possessions (Genesis 14:20); Jacob vowed to give one-tenth of all his future acquisitions to the Almighty (Genesis 29:22). There are also mandated tithes to support the Levites (Numbers 18:21,24) and tithe for local poor (Deuteronomy 26:12).

How much should one give to an individual? The Vilna Gaon taught that the principle of supplying each person according to his needs is hinted to in the verses written in the previous paragraph. When a person shuts his hand, his fingers give the appearance of all being the same length. When a person opens his hand, however, he notices that each finger is a different length. So too with charity. Every poor person has different needs and our obligation to each one is in accordance with his unique situation. "Do not shut your hands" (verse 7), that is, do not give equally to every individual. "You shall surely open your hand" (verse 8), that is, notice that everyone is different, and give accordingly."

How does one separate ma'aser? It is often hard for people to part with their money. In the first paragraph of the Shema it says, "You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your soul and all of your money." The Rabbis in the Talmud ask, "Why does it say, 'All of your money?' The answer: for some people, parting with their money is more difficult than parting with their life. (For those old enough to remember Jack Benny -- who was Jewish -- now you know the source of the joke for his "I'm thinking it over" response when challenged by a robber "Your money or your life!")

One easy method for those who receive a paycheck is to take one-tenth of the net paycheck and deposit into a separate philanthropic account. It keeps the accounting honest and makes it easier to fulfill the mitzvah. If one has investments he needs to make an accounting semi-annually or at least annually.

The renewed covenant teaches us a very important principle.

2 Cor 9:8

But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.

The Greek word for 'cheerful' means 'hilarious', and I suspect that it clarifies the attitude that governs our giving to support the work of the Kingdom.

For a complete overview is The Tzedakah Treasury -- An anthology of Torah teachings on the mitzvah of charity - to instruct and inspire by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer.


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