The Mitzvah of Tzedakah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The word tzedakah is often translated as charity, an English word that online dictionaries tell me focuses on helping those in need. US tax laws, on the other hand, treat any giving to a certified not-for-profit as charitable, when those organizations often have very different agendas than helping those in need. Other causes are often important, too, but they’re not the same.

I like to keep the distinction in mind as I consider the mitzvah of tzedakah, separate from related mitzvot such as gemillut hasadim, performing acts of kindness for others.

Charity, Defined

Rambam’s Obigation 195 says God commanded us la’asot tzedakah, to do charity (or justice, an interesting choice of verb, as compared to our common English verb of giving charity), to strengthen the weak and expand their lives (give them breathing room). The Torah uses other words for it, he points out, in our parsha, 15;8 telling us to open our hands to the poor person and in Vayikra 25;35 calling for ve-he-hezakta bo, strengthen or support him.

The verses agree we are to help our poor (Rambam did not use the possessive pronoun), and support them as they need.

How Much?

Aruch HaShulhan 249;1 gives an amount: if we have the wherewithal, we should remedy all their lacks. Assuming we do not, as is generally true, the highest level of giving is a fifth, of our principal when we first start out, and then of all later income. He includes in “principal” wedding gifts, regardless of whether the people who gave those gifts had already given tzedakah themselves.

Those unable or unwilling to be that generous should give a tenth. Income is calculated from one Rosh HaShanah to the next, and is the net of all one’s endeavors, business expenses deductible, but not household living expenses. Raising a grandchild cannot be deducted from tzedakah-needing income, but raising an unrelated orphan do.

However, Aruch HaShulhan points out, the verse cited in Ketubbot 50a [in this week’s Daf Yomi, for those who like serendipity] to arrive at the fifth and tenth numbers [Ya’akov’s promise aser a’aserenu after he has the ladder dream] is likely an asmachtaHazal attaching an idea to a verse (and therefore amenable to later amendment].

He posits a history to the idea: when the Jews lived in Israel, life was better, God gave them all they needed, and it was possible to meet the needs of the poor with less than a  tenth of one’s income. In such an economic environment, those with wherewithal must give enough to meet the poor’s needs.

When exile and more widespread economic difficulties came, the wealthiest could no longer cover the poor, necessitating the articulation of standards, and Hazal came up with a tenth and a fifth.

[Remember: any details that are rabbinic leave open the possibility of change by a future Sanhedrin.]

Getting Charity and Still Giving Charity

Rambam chooses to include an idea from Gittin 7b, even a person supported from charitable funds should give to someone less fortunate or as unfortunate, even a small amount.

[I believe Rambam wants us to understand the obligation to give charity rests on all Jews independent of financial status. I could imagine objecting the person could just take less charity, and suggest Rambam sees an error in the attitude: just like charity funds provide the poor person matzah for Pesah, each Jew has a mitzvah to give charity, I think at least partially as an expression of our required sense of connection to fellow Jews in need. If it’s a mitzvah, charity funds should support the Jew’s mitzvah.]

Minhat Hinuch cites Shach Yoreh De’ah 248;1 who assumes Rambam meant only when the poor person earns money in addition to what s/he receives from charity [someone who has enough money right now, but no visible means of support going forward, for example, has the right to accept charity]. According to Shach, Rambam meant something more limited than I suggested, a person who earns money must give, even if the money he earns doesn’t prevent him from falling into need.

Aruch HaShulhan 248;1 says Tur attributes Shach’s idea to R. Saadya Gaon, who noted one of the main verses about tzedakah says ve-hei ahicha imach, your brother shall live with you, you only need to support your brother once you can support yourself. Beit Yosef doubted the claim, Aruch HaShulhan thinks because of this halachah, the requirement for those who need support to also support others.

For his own part, Aruch HaShulhan thinks the exemption from tzedakah applies to general, regular gifts, where recipients’ need to give is a once a year matter.

An Expanded Definition

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 479 restricts then broadens the idea. He recommends giving through an intermediary, where the donor and recipient do not know each other, as the highest form of charity, because it removes any embarrassment. [Rambam famously named a higher level of charity, where one Jew gives another a job, a loan, or the seed money for an eventually successful business. Sefer Ha-Hinuch leaves it out here, perhaps because he is focused on giving money.]

Then he adjures his son not to think tzedakah applies only to the destitute, it sometimes reaches the wealthy, such as a man who runs into temporary financial trouble—he fell ill and needs medical care where no one recognizes his insurance,  for example. Sefer Ha-Hinuch is certain this is included in tzedakah, although he soon slips in that it is gemilut hasadim, being kind to others, filling all their needs we can. [He has folded gemilut hasadim into tzedakah, when many sources keep them separate.]

Aruch HaShulhan Yoreh De’ah 247;1 assumes the reverse, tzedakah is a subset of gemilut hasadim, and reminds us Sukkah 49b says gemilut hasadim is greater than tzedakah. [Because it is not about the parameters of the mitzvah, I am leaving out Aruch HaShulhan’s extended reminders of the value of tzedakah, how the Jew who gives to the poor becomes a sort of creditor to God, as it were, and more.]

In this greater world of tzedaka, comforting words can count as well.

At the end of the mitzvah, Sefer HaHinuch notes it applies to men and women, and says the Jew neglects the mitzvah when s/he chooses not to help with a need s/he has been asked or sees, and has the ability to address.

Charity Helps the Giver, According to Sefer Ha-Hinuch

His more expansive view fits his focus on how we do the mitzvah and what we get out of it. He defines it as giving those in need happily and with a good heart, and cites the Sifrei’s inference (from Devarim 15;8), patoah tiftah et yadcha you shall surely open your hand, the Jew must open his hand repeatedly,

For a reason for the mitzvah, he points us to Mishpatim [he called it Im Kesef Talveh, because his era split Mishpatim into two parashiyyot], on the mitzvah of lending money to the poor, Mitzvah 66. There, he had said God commanded lending money to teach us the qualities of hessed and rahamim (loosely: kindness and mercy or compassion].

He also said God obligates us to improve our characters in order for us to be worthy of God’s bounty, part of God’s “desire” to shower good on the world. Otherwise, God could and would take care of the poor Himself. Sefer Ha-Hinuch calls it a hessed of God’s to let us build merit by being the messengers of God’s support of the poor.

[Sefer Ha-Hinuch also says poverty is a punishment, a claim we would have to spend too much time on to analyze properly for here.]

All these above ideas are satisfied by kindnesses as much as cash donations.

The Social Setup of Charitable Giving

The donor needs only give those in need, not people who choose to deny themselves rather than spend their own money, and only to fill the impoverished person’s lacks, not enrich him/her, as the verse in our parsha says dei mahsoro, as much as s/he is missing. [Sefer Ha-Hinuch omits the Talmudic idea that dei mahsoro does obligate us to replicate the person’s accustomed standard of living; were we only to read Sefer Ha-Hinuch, we would think dei mahsoro limits how much we need to give—as it does—but not realize it also certifies as charity giving what others might think of as luxuries.]

Encouragement and Possible Coercion of Tzedakah

Sefer Ha-Hinuch cites Rambam from Mishneh Torah, he had never heard of a Jewish community without some kind of charitable fund; tells us Shemot Rabbah 36;3 infers from Yeshayahu 33;17 (the act of tzedakah shall be peace) that no one ever became poor by giving too much charity; and, based on Yeshayahu 1;27, is sure the Jewish people will be redeemed in the merit of the charity they give.

Minhat Hinuch 479 raises the flip side of encouragement, the issue of whether a court coerces Jews to give tzedakah. Courts do enforce observance of obligations, with the significant exception of where the Torah articulated a specific reward [I think because the person is making an informed choice].

With tzedakah, the Torah says to give the poor person and not be unhappy as we do, for in return for doing this, God will bless in all our actions and the work of our hands. Does that count as secharah be-tzidah, its reward has been named in the Torah, and courts should not impose the mitzvah on the recalcitrant?

Shulhan Aruch 249 accepts the view the courts do coerce, and Minhat Hinuch offers a few reasons: the reward for tzedakah is not significant enough; many verses obligate tzedakah, where the reward only appears once, meaning the courts are enforcing the fulfillment of those other verses; the reward is for giving without being upset, the giving itself has no direct compensation in the Torah.

The Causes To Which Tzedakah Can Be Given

Rema says we may not use tzedakah funds for mitzvot, such as the candles in shul (or its electricity bill, in more modern parlance), only for the poor. Except Aruch HaShulhan sees many ways to help the poor. In 249;8, he quotes Shach, who said serving as sandek at a circumcision of a baby whose father does not have money, where the sandek pays for the meal, or paying for a wedding whose families cannot affort it, can come from ma’aser money, the tenth of one’s income many set aside to fulfill this obligation.

[A reminder that when we set aside ma’aser, we have to think carefully about what causes appropriately receive the money.]

As he expands the list further, we see how hard it can be to remember what tzedakah is and is not. Giving a donation when being called to the Torah can come from ma’aser, he says, because it supports the shul (whose functionaries were always poor, I think he means; there are some shuls today where I am no longer sure of that). On the other hand, the customary gift to the rabbi who performs the wedding (or other communal workers, like a hazzan) count as wedding expenses.

Giving to poor family members can count as tzedakah, although the Gemara denigrates someone who insists on supporting family from tzedakah funds.

Aruch HaShulhan disliked the common idea one could buy books of Jewish learning with tithed money and lend it to those who need it. If that’s true, why not count the money spent on tefillin and other ritual objects, as long as the person is open to others using them, too? Even if we continue to accept the practice, he adds, the community could likely require the person to leave the Torah scroll or books in a public place (at shul, for example), so it be readily available for those who want to borrow it.

Sum total: the Torah requires Jews to help and support those in need, to the extent of our abilities, with good cheer.

About Gidon Rothstein

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