Tzedakah Is Justice, Not Kindness

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Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

At first glance it would seem that the word tzeddakah, rooted in the word Tzeddek, is an inappropriate term to describe the act of giving charity. Performing an act of charity is generally understood to be a display of chesed, kindness, to another human being. We owe nothing to the poor person; the impoverished have no legal claim on our act of charity. Rav Soloveitchik therefore asked where is the “justice” in the act of charity? Charity should more appropriately be called “Chesed”.

The Rambam explains (Moreh Nevuchim III:53) that charity is indeed an act of justice, an obligation, and not a free offering, and this is the way Halakhah views the charitable act. There is no other legal system in the world that allows the taking of charity by force; the very idea of charity seems to negate any coercive component. Yet there is an explicit ruling in the Gemara (Bava Batra 8b) that it is permissible for Beit Din to remove objects from the home of a wealthy person who refuses to give charity. Most Rishonim agree that there is a legal lien on one’s charity similar to the lien of a borrower.

The Rav further asked, why did the Torah establish the institution of charity as a financial obligation? And he answered, because HaShem wanted to ingrain within us the concept that all money is really His. Whatever He gives us is conditional on our giving charity. This is what we learnt from the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:7) that states, “Give Him from His Own, for you and your possessions are His”.

It is not only charity but many other mitzvot that are based on HaShem’s ownership of the world, such as the agricultural laws of Eretz Yisrael. All of these are based on the basic principle articulated by David HaMelech (Tehilim 24:1), “HaShem’s is the earth  and its fullness.”

About Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Aharon Ziegler is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Agudath Achim of Boro Park and the Dean and Rosh Kollel of Kollel Agudath Achim. He is the author of six volumes of Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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