Do We Really Do Tzedakah?

Re'eh By :  Marc Wolf Posted On Aug 27, 2011 / 5771 | Torah Commentary | Social Justice

Do we really do tzedakah?

I have posed this question to fund-raisers and philanthropists, and most, if not all, have responded with a categorical yes. I am sure that many of you reading this are thinking the same thing. But allow me to put a finer point on the question. If I contribute to my kids’ Jewish day school, is that tzedakah? If I give a donation to the Museum of Modern Art, is it tzedakah? And, of course, the obvious question, if I make an annual contribution to The Jewish Theological Seminary, is that considered tzedakah? There are those around JTS who might take issue with my questioning that last one, but according to the rabbinic understanding of the biblical mitzvah, none of the above is considered tzedakah. By delving into the biblical and rabbinic texts concerning tzedakah, we can begin to discover that what we consider to be tzedakah may not fit the parameters of what our sacred texts are actually demanding of us.

A number of the biblical texts that serve as the foundation of the mitzvah of tzedakah come from this week’s reading of Parashat Reeih. We read:

If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsmen. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. (Deut. 15:7–8)

Within the above verse, two phrases play important roles in defining the halakhah for observing the mitzvah of tzedakah, both of which deal not with the amount of tzedakah to give but the intention and the motivation behind the act. The word choice and grammatical structure are our clues. The first is using the phrase “harden your heart.” In his read on this verse, the Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noah Berezovski, goes so far as to assert, quoting Maimonides and other sages, that giving tzedakah requires a pure intention and favorable disposition. The Slonimer states that if we do not give willingly and happily, then although we achieve the desired outcome of supporting someone in need, we are not fulfilling the mitzvah as God would have wanted. The second key phrase is in the charge to “open your hand.” The translation does not pick up on the nuance, but the Hebrew grammar deploys a verb structure that emphasizes the importance of giving. This grammatical structure is echoed further in the text, underscoring the importance of not only the act of giving, but the attitude as well.

What the Rabbis pick up on in these verses, as well as a few others from Reeih and the book of Leviticus, is the overwhelming desire to respond to an immediate need—to an individual in need. I say overwhelming because the mitzvah is incumbent upon all people, even those who themselves are sustained by tzedakah (Shulhan Arukh YD 248:1). What develops through the codification of halakhah through the centuries limits the definition of tzedakah to be specific to an individual in need, with an eye to restoring justice to the world order. Taken at face value, we can understand why this truly holy endeavor has become so central to Jewish communities. Judaism values justice and has constructed a system of communal support that responds directly to poverty and loss.

Of course, we can make corollaries between the myriad of organizations that seek to restore justice in the world and the manner in which the Rabbis viewed tzedakah. In its broadest understanding, our modern conception of tzedakah can, and should, be seen as fighting hunger and poverty the world over.

But where does that leave all of the support that Jewish communities around the world contribute for education, the arts, hospitals, and countless charities seeking to do good in the world? Surely we cannot discount this philanthropic spirit, but can we find a Jewish context for supporting the ballet, Jewish education, or medical research?

I believe that the Deuteronomic concept of ma’aser (tithing) that we also read this week in Parashat Reeih gives us the textual roots for modern-day philanthropy. On its most basic level and where ma’aser finds its roots in the ancient Near East, a tithe was a sacred donation to the local god or sovereign. We are introduced to the idea first by Abraham, when a tithe is presented as tribute to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:20). In the Torah, tithes were originally prescribed to support the local sanctuaries, “for it is the tithes set aside by the Israelites as a gift to the Lord that I give the Levites as their share” (Num. 18:24). However, one of the defining characteristics of Deuteronomy is a focus on the central sanctuary—as opposed to local sanctuaries. Thus, there was no need for the original purpose of the tithe. Deuteronomy rereads the importance of the tithe and instructs the following:

You shall truly tithe all the produce of your seed that the field brings forth year by year. And you shall eat before the Lord your God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstlings of your herds and of your flocks; that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. (Deut. 14:22–23)

As we read above, we are instructed not to donate, but personally consume before God 1/10 (ma’aser has as its root the number ten—eser) of our annual production. While we are not contributing it for the maintenance of our local sanctuaries, we are still instructed to set it aside and dedicate it for a holy cause—”before the Lord your God.” This departure from the original purpose of supporting the local sanctuaries continues to develop in the verses that follow. If the distance to the central sanctuary is too great, “[t]hen shall you turn it into money, and bind up the money in your hand, and you shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose; and you shall bestow that money for whatever your soul desires . . . ” (14:25–26).

What we can learn from this reading is that we are instructed to set aside 1/10 of our earnings and to dedicate it—with all the religious attitudes that that implies—to whatever moves us. But beyond simple frivolity, we are to spend it in the presence of God, with some holy purpose. This, I posit, is the intention we should have when engaging in philanthropy. In this way, Jewish philanthropy is any contribution made by a Jew—not solely to Jewish causes. We are moved by a myriad of ideas and institutions. We are moved by the arts and by teachers and leaders, and investing in their success with the results of our accomplishments can, and should be, viewed as a mitzvah.

But as much as we may contribute to the multitude of causes that move us, the text continues and instructs that every third year, instead of investing in whatever our heart desires, our ma’aser is to be dedicated to justice—and supporting the needs of the community—a greater gift of tzedakah for that year.

In this time of fluctuating markets and increasing demands on philanthropic support, Parashat Reeih can teach us a number of lessons about our giving habits. One is to answer the question of whether we really do tzedakah. Do we respond to those in immediate need as we walk down the street each day? Do we seek to not only pursue but advance justice in the world? A second question is whether we see all of our giving as Jewish giving. Do we focus our intention, when we give, on the holiness of the mitzvah? And finally, do we hear the Torah’s recurrent call to support our own community?

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.