Tzedakah: Not Just Charity But Duty By Rabbi Ari Ballaban

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If you’ve looked in the lobby outside the sanctuary lately, you may have noticed the addition of a large structure on one of the walls. This is our beautiful new tzedakah box, built by Scott Segalewitz, designed to be used by the whole community; whenever you come to the synagogue, I invite you to visit and use it. Eventually, once the box is filled, the children in Makor will help us choose a worthy cause for all the donations.

Though it might seem like tzedakah is one of the simplest ideas in Judaism—so basic that any explanation would be unnecessary—it still is worth taking this moment as an opportunity to refresh our understanding of what this word truly means and to remind ourselves of its importance. The term itself is liable to be confusing. Though people often translate it as charity—and though there is some overlap in meaning—tzedakah invokes an ideal far more expansive than the English “charity” might suggest.

This difference in significance comes from the two terms’ respective etymologies. “Charity” derives from the Latin caritas and Old French charité, and it implies a model of giving which is prompted by a donor’s philanthropic affection or mercy. Our Jewish notion of tzedakah is markedly different. It comes from the Biblical Hebrew root tzadi-dalet-kuf, which, in the grammatical form tzedakah, conveys the idea of providing assistance to others due only to the just underpinnings of the act itself. While the charity model of giving certainly has its own merit, there is something I find especially compelling about the Jewish idea of tzedakah. The fact that tzedakah is something a person gives not just if they feel generous (or impelled by a sense of mercy for the needy), but instead which they are called always to give because it is what is right can change the way we think about giving.

In fact, to this effect, there are a pair of rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Bathra 9a) who debate what to do when someone asks you for a donation, but you aren’t sure whether or not they truly are in need (i.e., Is the person telling the truth or just trying to take advantage of your generosity?). The central question the rabbis try to answer is this: May one verify that the ostensibly needy person actually is poor before donating to him?

The first of the two rabbis, Rabbi Huna, says: “One checks into such people when they ask for food but not when they seek clothing.” His reason for this is the following:  A person who needs clothing is exposed to the contempt of others for his nakedness, while someone needing food is not. The other rabbi, Rabbi Judah, says the opposite:  “One checks into such people when they ask for clothing but not when they seek food.” His reason was that a person who is hungry experiences visceral suffering (and thus shouldn’t be made to wait before getting a donation) while someone in tattered clothes does not.

Over the course of Jewish history, there was much debate about how we ought to determine which of these two rabbis is correct. However, I think trying to make that determination utterly misses the point that the Talmud actually strives to convey. The real purpose of this text, I would argue, is to re-emphasize the imperative element of tzedakah and to make us wonder the following:  In what case shouldn’t we believe that the just thing to do (literally, the act of tzedakah) is to help the poor as soon as possible? This text is meant to uproot something all-too-familiar in our capitalist, 21st century American society: The acceptance of human suffering in exchange for our own comfort and thus a quasi-commoditization of tzedakah, of justice.

On that note, each time you see our new tzedakah box (and hopefully contribute to it!), it is worth taking a moment to ensure that you don’t overlook how radical a concept this box ought to represent. If properly understood, it can teach us to do something which might go against our instincts. It can help us to live in unconditional, nonreciprocal solidarity with all humankind, and it can help us remember that, as Jews, our moral duty is to spend at least as much energy worrying about whether others are safe, healthy, and taken care of as we do with ourselves. In addition, perhaps most importantly, the ideals embedded within the concept of tzedakah can also help us to remember that we are called to care for others in such an incredibly expansive way for one reason alone: because it is right.


Rabbi Ari Ballaban