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The Jewish Philosophy of Philanthropy
By Daniel Rothner
Founder and Director, Areyvut (www.areyvut.org)

From a religious panel discussion, part of the “Philosophy of Philanthropy” course of the Ferris State University Master's in Education with a Concentration in Philanthropic Studies.

According to Judaism, philanthropy is not an option but a duty ― a duty to God and to one's community. It is forbidden to avert one's eyes from someone in need, and help should be given in the way that most preserves the dignity of the individual receiving the money. Philanthropy is not only an obligation of the rich who can afford to give millions, but even one who receives tzedakah himself should still try to give anything that he can. The fulfillment of the obligation to give tzedakah and support others in need is part of each Jew's task to continue to perfect the world that God created and create a moral and just society, thus no one is exempt.

The Jewish view of philanthropy as an obligation is intrinsically different than that of most other religions. The basis of this disparity is the Jewish concept of a mitzvah, a commandment. The etymological origins of the words charity, from the Latin caritas, affection, and philanthropy, from the Greek philo, love, illustrate that the prevailing view in the Western world is that the basis for charity is love. Charity will be instigated by feelings of love or compassion for an individual or a cause. In Judaism, however, it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to give a certain percentage of ones income to charity. It is best if this money is given with love and compassion, however lack of emotion does not preclude the obligation to give.

Why should a person have to give money if he/she does not feel emotionally compelled? The answer can be found by examining the Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah . The root of tzedakah is tzedek , meaning justice. When I give 10% to 20% of my income to a worthy cause, it is not benevolence but justice. Why is it justice to give my hard earned money to someone else? Ultimately all of the money that I earn comes from God, and therefore if God instructed that a percentage of the money be given to others who deserve it, to do so is not only a moral imperative, but a legal imperative. I must recognize the needs of others and open my hand to them.

Nevertheless, Jewish sources recognize that to give of my money to those in need, recognizing that I do not have total dominion over it, is tremendously difficult. That is why the Talmud says that tzedakah -charity, is the most powerful force in the world, so great that it can even save one from death. One sage was so overcome by the power of tzedakah that he declared that its reward is equal to the reward of all of the other commandments combined.

The power of tzedakah reaches its greatest heights when it is done in the way that preserves the dignity of the receiver to the utmost. True justice cannot be achieved by denigrating others. Maimonides, a great medieval philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, delineated eight levels of giving charity reflecting the principle of human worth. The highest level is to provide someone with a job or interest-free loan that will enable him to help himself and maintain self-respect. One rung below that is to give money in a way that neither the giver nor the receiver know of the other's identity and in this way, the receiver will not need to be embarrassed. The lowest level of giving is to give with an uncheerful face. Above that is giving less money than asked for but with a pleasant expression. We can infer from this that according to Maimonides, the attitude and the way the tzedakah is given is even more crucial than the exact amount of money. Maimonides also specified that one should give locally before one gives globally. It is our responsibility to ensure that those in our families and communities are provided for before we can look beyond that.

 

ARTICLES & BOOKS ON TZEDAKAH

American Jewish Philanthropy in the 90's
Author: Tobin, Gary
Publisher: Brandeis University Press
Year Published: 1995

The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money
Author: Tamari, Meir
Publisher: Jason Aronson
Year Published: 1995

Exploring Jewish Ethics and Values
Author: Isaacs, Ronald H.
Year Published: 1999
Publisher: KTAV Publishing House
This book consists of rabbinic and biblical sayings and information on a variety of topics related to responsibilities to people and animals and care of the earth.

For Kids- Putting God on the Guest List: How to Claim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Bar or Bat Mitzvah
Author: Salkin, Rabbi Jeffrey K.
Publisher: Jewish Lights Publishing
Includes a listing of Tzedakah ideas for the Bat / Bar Mitzvah child to give in honor of their Bat / Bar Mitzvah .

Gym Shoes and Irises: Personalized Tzedakah, Book 1
Author: Siegel, Danny
Year Published: 1982
Publisher: The Town House Press

Gym Shoes and Irises: Personalized Tzedakah, Book 2
Author: Siegel, Danny
Year Published: 1988
Publisher: The Town House Press

The Humongous Pushka In the Sky
Author: Siegel, Danny Year
Published: 1993
Publisher: The Town House Press
The Humongous Pushka In the Sky
is a fictional story intended for young children to inspire them to do tzedakah and chesed .

Jews, Money and Social Responsibility
Author: Bush, Lawrence and Jeffrey Dekro
Year Published: 1993
Publisher: The Shefa Fund
A discussion of socially responsible shopping, investment and philanthropy from an American Jewish perspective.

The Jewish Moral Virtues
Author: Borowitz, Eugene B. and Frances Weinman Schwartz
Year Published: 1999
Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society
A collection of 24 virtues gleaned from a wide range of Jewish sources.

The Laws of Tzedakah and Maaser: A Comprehensive Guide
Author: Taub, Rabbi Shimon.
Publisher: Artscroll Mesorah
Rabbi Taub details the halachot of the complex mitzvah of tzedakah and maaser , tithing in The Laws of Tzedakah and Maaser . This volume includes sources and footnotes on the subject and addresses contemporary halachic questions on tzedakah .

Maaser Kesafim: Giving a Tenth to Charity
Author: Edited by Domb, Cyril
Publisher: Feldheim Publishers
Year Published: 1992

Making a Difference: Commandments and Continuity
Author: Shekel, Michal
Year Published: 1997
Publisher: KTAV Publishing House

Making a Difference: Putting Jewish Spirituality into Action One Mitzvah at a Time
Author: Artson, Bradley Shavit and Gila Gevirtz
Year Published: 2001
Publisher: Behrman House, Inc.
An action- based view of Jewish spirituality.

Munbaz II and Other Mitzvah Heroes
Author: Siegel, Danny
Year Published: 1988
Publisher: The Town House Press
The people in this book set out to do something to change things, to alter for the good their immediate surroundings.

The Poor Among Us: Jewish Tradition and Social Policy
Author: edited by Rubin, Gary
Year Published: 1986
Publisher: American Jewish Committee

Tell Me a Mitzvah
Author: Siegel, Danny
Year Published: 1993
Publisher: Kar-Ben

To Do the Right and the Good
Author: Dorff, Elliot N.
Year Published: 2002
Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society
Explores the Jewish perspective of social justice in relation to such topics as poverty, war, family and privacy.

Tzedakah
Author: Neusner, Jacob
Year Published: 1982
Publisher: Rossel Books

Tzedakah: Can Jewish Philanthropy Buy Jewish Survival?
Author: Neusner, Jacob
Year Published: 1982
Publisher: Rossel Books

Tzedakah, Gemilut Chasasdim and Ahavah: A Manual for World Repair
Author: Grishaver, Joel Lurie and Beth Huppin
Year Published: 1983
Publisher: Alternatives in Religious Education

The Tzedakah Treasury: An Anthology of Torah Teachings on the Mitzvah of Charity - to Instruct and Inspire.
Author: Feuer, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim
Publisher: Artscroll Mesorah
The Tzedakah Treasury
includes all the basics on tzedakah including the halachot and the sources of the mitzvah . This book attempts to answers ones practical questions of the mitzvah and uses real stories for examples.

Tzedakah and Us
Author: Kimelman, Reuven
Year Published: 1991
Publisher: CLAL

SOURCES ON TZEDAKAH

Leviticus 19:9-10: And when you reap the harvest in your land, you shall not reap the corners of your field; neither shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the single grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.

Leviticus 25:35: And when your brother will become poor and you will extend your hand to him.

Deuteronomy 4:19-22: When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands... And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.

Deuteronomy 15:7-8: If, however, there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

Deuteronomy 15:10: And your heart shall not be grieved when you give him.

Deuteronomy 15:11: You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy, in your land.

Deuteronomy 19:28-29: At the end of three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall lay it up inside your gates...and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.

Deuteronomy 24:19-20: When you reap your harvest in your field, and you forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; that the Lord your God will bless you in all the work of your hands.

Isaiah 58:7: Share your bread with the hungry and make the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked clothe them.

Psalms 33:5: He loves charity and justice; the earth is filled with the loving kindness of the Lord.

Proverbs 10:2: Charity saves from death.

Proverbs 14:21: He who is kind to the poor, happy is he.

Proverbs 21:3: Doing charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

Proverbs 22:2: The rich and poor meet together; God is the maker of them all.

Ethics of the Fathers 2:8: Hillel used to say, The more tzedakah , the more shalo m (peace).

Ethics of the Fathers 3:7: Rabbi Elazar of Bartota said: “Give unto Him of what is His, seeing that you and all you have is His.”

Ethics of the Fathers 5:13: He who gives (charity) and wants others to give is pious.

Shekalim 5:6: There was a secret chamber in the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple) where pious people would leave money in secret and those who had been well-to-do but had become poor would come and take in secret.

Talmud Brachot 58b: Rabbi Chana ben Chanila “would keep his hand in his pocket, so that when a poor person would ask for money, he would not feel humiliated.”

Talmud Shabbat 63a: One who lends money is greater than one who performs charity, and one who forms a partnership is greater than all.

Talmud Shabbat 151b: Rabbi Hiyya advised his wife, “When a poor man comes to the door, be quick to give him food so that the same may be done to your children.” She exclaimed, “You are cursing our children [with the suggestion that they may become beggars].” But Rabbi Hiyya replied, “There is a wheel which revolves in this world.”

Talmud Pesachim 8a-b: If a person says, “I am giving this coin to charity so that my child will live,” or “so that I will make it into the next world,” he is regarded as completely righteous [his self-centered motives notwithstanding].

Talmud Succa 49b: Our Rabbis taught: Deeds of loving-kindness are superior to charity in three respects. Charity can be accomplished only with money; deeds of loving-kindness can be accomplished through personal involvement as well as with money. Charity can be given only to the poor; deeds of loving-kindness can be done for both poor and rich. Charity applies only to the living; deeds of loving-kindness apply to both the living and the dead.

Talmud Chagiga 5a: Rabbi Yanai once saw a man give money to a poor man publicly. He said, “It would have been better for you not to have given him anything rather than giving to him as you did, causing him embarrassment.”

Talmud Ketubot 5a: A person shouldn't give more than a fifth of his income [to tzedakah ], lest he himself come to be in need of charity.

Talmud Ketuvot 68a: If a person closes his eyes to avoid giving [any] charity, it is as if he committed idolatry.

Talmud Ketuvot 68a: Our Rabbis taught: If a man pretends to have a blind eye, a swollen belly, or a shrunken leg, he will not leave this world before actually coming into such a condition. One who accepts charity and is not in need of it, his end will be that he will not leave this world before he comes to such a situation.

Talmud Gittin 7b: Even a poor man who himself survives on charity should give charity.

Talmud Gittin 61a: We support the non-Jewish poor along with the poor of Israel.

Talmud Baba Bathra 9a: Charity is equal in importance to all other commandments combined.

Talmud Baba Bathra 9a: One who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses.

Talmud Baba Bathra 9a: When a [poor] man says, “Provide me with clothes,” he should be investigated [lest he be found to be a cheat]; when he says, “Feed me,” he should not be investigated [but fed immediately, lest he starve to death during the investigation].

Talmud Baba Batra 9b: Rabbi Yitzchak said, “Whoever gives even a small coin to a poor man receives six blessings, but whoever speaks reassuringly to him receives eleven blessings.”

Talmud Baba Batra 10a: All the charity and deeds of kindness that the children of Israel perform in this world promote peace and good understanding between them and G-d.

Maimonides' Ladder or Eight Levels of Tzedakah

Maimonides (the Rambam ) in Hilchot Matnot Ani'im-Laws on Gifts for Poor People (7: 13) lists the order regulating the priorities and later on (10: 7-14) lists eight levels of distributing tzedakah each one higher than the next. These serve as Maimonides' introduction to the mitzvah (commandment) of tzedakah.

Listed below are Maimonides' eight levels of giving from lowest to highest:

  1. A person gives but is not happy when s/he digs into his/her pocket in order to give.
  2. A person gives cheerfully, but gives less than s/he should.
  3. A person gives, but only when asked by a poor person.
  4. A person gives without having to be asked, but gives directly to the poor. The poor person knows who gave the help, and the giver knows who was benefited
  5. A person gives a donation in a certain place, but walks away so that the giver does not know who received the benefit. However, the poor person knows the giver.
  6. A person makes a donation to a poor person secretly. The giver knows who was benefited, but the poor person does not know who the giver was.
  7. A person contributes anonymously to the tzedakah fund, which is then distributed to the poor.
  8. The highest level of charity is to give money and help to prevent another person from becoming poor. For example, teaching a person a trade, finding them a job, lending money, teaching them to fish.

WEBSITES ON TZEDAKAH

Giving Wisely: http://www.givingwisely.org.il/
Giving Wisely is a comprehensive Internet directory of Israeli nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.

Jewish Fund for Justice: http://www.jfjustice.org
The Jewish Fund for Justice is the only national Jewish organization solely committed to fighting the injustice of poverty in America. By assisting grassroots organizations of low-income people from all backgrounds and faiths struggling for decent housing, schools, healthcare and jobs and by educating Jews about poverty issues and the importance of developing community-based social justice partnerships, the Jewish Fund for Justice brings to life the core Jewish values of tikkun olam (repair of the world) and tzedakah (righteous giving).

Just Tzedaka: http://www.just-tzedakah.org
The mission of this site and organization is to provide tools and encouragement to increase the level and effectiveness of tzedakah (charity) among American Jews. It endeavors to assist donors to give tzedakah with care, thought, knowledge, and an overall strategy, not impulsively. This site contains a brief summary of some halachic (Jewish law) issues related to giving tzedakah , profiles of Jewish charities, information on activities, leadership, and finances and excerpts from classical Jewish sources.

Kavod: http://www.kavod.org/
Kavod, a tzedakah collective creates new programs and fund existing programs that help Jews and non-Jews living in the United States, Israel, and around the world to live in dignity and honor.

Urban Jew--Machar Projects: http://www.urbanjew.org/machar.html
MACHAR teaches Jewish high school students about poverty in America. Service projects that support microlending, community investment, and grassroots empowerment are interwoven with Jewish text study and critical reflection on American culture. MACHAR involves Jewish youth in projects that fight poverty in the spirit of Maimonides' highest level of tzedakah --a partnership that enables someone to become self-sufficient.

The Joy of Charity: http://www.joyoflife.org.il
The more you give, the more you get. The purpose of this site is to explain how this works and to encourage you to try it out. It includes philosophy and texts on charity as well as other resources.