Who we are: Tzedakah is at the very heart of Judaism

Rabbi Doug ZeldenRabbi Doug Zelden

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: B’har-B’chukotai – Leviticus 25:1-26:2/26:3-27:34. 

We are in the midst of the Omer Period right now, in which we count 49 days from Passover to Shavuot in anticipation of receiving the Torah and commandments at Mount Sinai.

With the approach of Shavuot we ponder on all the laws and commandments we receive and reaccept each year and the proper way to observe those commandments.

We say every morning in the opening prayers of the Shacharit service “Aylu Devarim Shein lahem Shiur” These are the things, Mitzvot (commandments), we have upon us, which don’t have a certain amount attached to them. Then we list a number of righteous acts that we must do and we are not sure how much we must do them, because no “Shiur” (amount) is attributed to them. They are Leaving the corner of your field for the needy, Bringing the first fruits, the pilgrimages to Jerusalem, acts of loving kindness to others (charitable acts and donations), and the study of the Torah.

I remember reading a number of years ago a study done in the United States about charitable giving amongst various segments of the population. The study showed that of all sub groups in the United States, Jews were per capita the most charitable. Why is it that Jews are and have always been at the top of most charitable causes?

For starters I want to use the Jewish term of “Tzedakah” and not charity. The word charity is derived from the Greek word “caritas” and is related to the French word “cheri” which means endearment. The Hebrew word “Tzedakah” comes from the word justice. The difference between the two is profound. “Tzedakah” has little to do with how you feel. One does not help only those they feel endeared to. “Tzedakah” has to do with justice; we give because it is the right thing to do. The ability of the poor person to arouse our compassion should have very little to do with whether or not we are willing to reach into our pockets. The sole criterion is whether the person is truly in need or not.

The famous Rabbi, Doctor, and commentator the Rambam, Maimonides, writes the following, “If a hungry person who one does not know approaches and says I am hungry please feed me, then one is not obligated to delve and check whether they are trustworthy. Rather one must provide for them immediately” (Maimonides Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:6). In fact Maimonides claims elsewhere that to turn ones back on such a person would be a direct transgression of a Biblical law. (Halacha 7:20). Indeed Tzedakah has little to do with how we feel and everything to do with doing that which is right.  

In today’s modern world we have become accustomed to expect aid from our government. Most countries today have welfare systems, educational systems and many other services that help those in need. What we fail to understand is how relatively new government welfare systems really are. In fact until only the past few hundred years the primary concern of most governments was physical security. The power of ancient governments was in their armies and not in their ability to help the poor and downtrodden. 

I believe that in this area Judaism was revolutionary. From the time that the Torah was given a system of welfare was in place. One example of this was the Sabbatical year (Shmitah) that we read about in the first half of this week’s double Torah portion of Behar-Bechukotai. The Torah commands every farmer in Parshat Behar to leave their fields to lay fallow every seventh year. During that year any person could enter the fields and eat as they pleased. In fact when articulating the various reasons for the Sabbatical year the Torah states, “And on the seventh year you shall leave it (your field) untended and unharvested so that the poor of your people will eat from it” (Exodus 23:11).  Besides the Sabbatical year farmers were (every year) obligated to leave a corner of their field open to the poor. These are just a few of the examples that exist in the Torah. As you can see long before welfare systems were introduced to the world, the Torah already had one in place.

In his code Maimonides also explains how prevalent welfare systems were in Jewish communities. Once again in the Laws pertaining to care of the poor he states, “Any city where Jews live the community is obligated to appoint a person in charge of Tzedakah (a Gabai). This person must be known and trustworthy. This person’s role will be to approach all the inhabitants of the town during the week to collect from each and every one of them what they are capable of giving or what the community has determined that they can give. These funds are distributed to the poor people of the community weekly each person receiving that which they require for seven days. This system was known as a Kupah” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 9:1). As you can see from time past every Jewish community was obligated to set up a welfare system. In fact in the next law Maimonides says, Never did we see or hear about a community amongst the Jewish people that did not have a Kupah of Tzedakah” (Halacha 9:3).

What an amazing revelation by Maimonides. Never was there a case where a community did not set up a welfare system. We could add to the words of Maimonides and say that in the 800 years since his passing the same is still true. The Torah established welfare systems long before most societies gave them any thought.

It is this constant emphasis of the importance of “Tzedakah” that our tradition ingrains within our Jewish psyches that has made us so charitable. The constant stress of the Torah and the writings of our Rabbis have made “Tzedakah” a part of our being. In fact the Talmud in the Tractate of Yevamot 79a suggests that acts of kindness must be an inherent character trait of a Jew.

 Alongside the great emphasis the Torah and our Rabbis placed on Tzedakah I believe there is another important idea that our tradition stresses that makes giving easier. In “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of our Fathers) which is customarily studied during these week’s between Pesach and Shavuot our Rabbis said, “Rabbi Elazar from Bartotah said, give him from his own for you and your possessions all belong to him” (Avot 3:7). What we own tell us our Rabbis is given to us on loan. Everything ultimately belongs to G-d. What Rabbi Elazar is saying is that in this world we are like bank managers. What we own is not ours but Hashem’s, it is our duty channel it on to help others. Beautiful are the words of the Kabbalah that explains that our right hand is used for taking while our left hand is used for giving. Never the less the Kabbalah continues to explain that between our right hand and our left hand is our body, because the body is a channel between our right and our left. Everything must pass through the body.

Once we can internalize that our possessions are a gift from Hashem and that we are responsible to help others then giving becomes very easy. There is a story told about a king who invited twenty guests to a very elaborate banquet. When the time came there was a person who was invited who did not have a place. The king proclaimed, “I invited twenty guests to this party and I set aside twenty places. If there is someone amongst you that does not have a place it is not my fault, it is because someone here has taken two places.” How true this analogy is. There is enough to go around the world so that not a single person should go hungry. It is up to all of us who have received more than our share to help those in need.

I have touched the tip of the iceberg of Jewish thought and sources on the concept of “Tzedakah.” I believe it is the constant stress our tradition places on the subject that makes us stand out in this area. Finally, our Rabbis state and we say this each day of the  High Holydays at the end of the “Un’taneh Tokef” Prayer, “Three things have the ability to overturn an evil decree and they are prayer, Tzedakah, and repentance” (Bereshit Rabah 44).

As we observe the Omer Period, and celebrated “Lag Ba-Omer” last week, we are reminded of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died because they did not show respect to one another. Not much has changed as we live in a world where we are increasingly closed off from one another. There is much that we need to repair maybe it all starts with “Tzedakah.”

Rabbi Doug Zelden is the rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox) in Chicago and chaplain for Home Bound Hospice. He also hosts the weekly TV Show “Taped with… Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).

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