Real Meaning of Tzedakah

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Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

It would seem, upon initial examination that the word “tzedakah”, rooted in the word “tzedek”, justice, 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 one’s fellow. We owe nothing to the poor person; the impoverished have no legal claim on our act of charity. Where is the “justice” in the act of charity? Charity should be more appropriately have been called “chesed”.

The Rambam explains in his Moreh Nevuchim (III:53) that charity is indeed an act of justice, an obligation and not a free offering, and this is in fact how halacha views the charitable act. There is no legal system in the world that allows the taking of charity by force; the very idea of charity would seem to be negated by any coercive component. Yet there is an explicit ruling in the Gemara (Bava Batra 8b) that it is permissible to remove objects from the home of a prosperous person who refuses to give charity, even on Friday just before sundown. Most Rishonim agree that there is a legal lien on one’s charity similar to the lien of a borrower.

Why did the Torah establish the institution of charity as a financial obligation? 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 we learn from the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:7) that states, “Give Him from His Own, for you and your possessions are all His.) Similarly, King David (Divrei HaYamim 29:14), “For everything is from You, and from Your own we have given You.” Avraham Avinu was the first to reveal this aspect of charity to the world, as the Torah states about him, “For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of HaShem, doing charity and justice (B’reishit 18:19).

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 King David (Tehillim 24:1), “HaShem’s is the earth and its fullness.

(Source: Derashot HaRav, p. 18)

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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