By Jennifer Noparstak
Graduate Student, University of Michigan School of Social Work
The Yiddish word, pushke (pronounced PUSH-kee ,PUSH-kuh, or PISH-kee), is derived from the Polish word puszka and means, "a little can or container kept in the home, often in the kitchen, in which money to be donated to a charity is accumulated" (Rosten, 1968, 296).
In the tradition of Judaism, "giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due" (Judaism 101). This custom originates with the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. In a number of passages in the Torah, G-d commands the Jewish people to perform acts of tzedakah (pronounced tseh-DUH-kuh), the Hebrew word for "justice" or "righteous behavior." Below are two passages which outline ways in which one can fulfill this commandment.
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger; I am the Lord your G-d (Plaut, 1981, 895).
If, however, there is a needy person among youâ€¦ do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsmen. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs (Plaut, 1981, 1441).
The above passages guide the Jewish people to treat those who are poor and/or without food with dignity and to ensure that their basic needs are met. The commandment to perform these righteous acts has been interpreted as caring for the poor of both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. The commandment has directed the Jewish community to create a social welfare system based on individual and communal responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves (MyJewishLearning.com). Throughout history, organizations that are part of the system have provided pushkes to households to collect funds for their causes.
During the Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d is said to decree the fate of each individual for the coming year, determining each individual's fate. With repentance and some specific actions, a decree can be changed. Performing tzedakah is one of the ways (Judaism 101) to gain repentance. The weight of fulfilling this commandment on the Jewish people, combined with a strong sense of morality, causes the act of treating others in a righteous and just manner to be of utmost importance. As such, giving to those in need is an essential and basic component of Jewish tradition and daily life (ibid.).
One of the most convenient ways in which to give money to people in need is to keep a pushke in one's household. The small box or container can be for one specific charitable cause or can be for general collection. Causes may include those in support of Israel, the hungry, the blind, the local school or synagogue. In some cases, an organizational representative comes to collect the contents of the pushke regularly. If not for one specific cause, members of the household can decide where the donation will be distributed, often to more than one organization or cause.
The pushke is important to the commandment of giving tzedakah because it allows Jews to give anonymously. The medieval Jewish scholar, Rambam, organized the acts of tzedakah by merit, considering anonymous giving more credible than acknowledged giving (Judaism 101). Anonymous donation maintains a dignified relationship between those who are giving and those who are receiving aid. It is also important because it signifies a community effort to aid people who need it and may not be able to ask for it directly. The pushke serves as a means for each member of a household to contribute, both children and adults alike, fostering the importance of giving among all age groups.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Robert L. Payton, Professor Emeritus of Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University and Senior Research Fellow of the Center on Philanthropy, has defined philanthropy as "the giving of one's time, talent or treasure for the sake of another- or for the common good" (Learning to Give). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Dictionary.com) defines philanthropy as "the effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind, as by charitable aid or donations."
A pushke is one of many ways people express a commitment to helping their communities philanthropically. By collecting money in one's home regularly — regardless of the amount and, whether for a specific cause or the general community's good — one is fulfilling an obligation to help his or her neighbors. It is considered more credible to develop a habit of giving regularly rather than giving large sums infrequently.
The use of a pushke is meant to further the spirit of philanthropy and righteousness, both in the home and in the community.
Key Related Ideas
Charity is describe in many ways including: the provision of help or relief to the poor; almsgiving; something given to the needy; alms; an institution, organization or fund established to help the needy; benevolence or generosity toward others or toward humanity; indulgence or forbearance in judging others; and, often in Christianity, the theological virtue defined as love directed first toward G-d — but also toward oneself and one's neighbors as objects of G-d's love (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language).
Justice is defined as the quality of being just; fairness; the principle of moral rightness, equity; conformity to moral rightness in action or attitude; righteousness; the upholding of what is just, especially fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards and law; in law, the administration and procedure of law; and conformity to truth, fact, or sound reason (ibid.).
Righteousness is synonymous with adhering to moral principles (ibid.).
Tzedakah means righteous behavior; justice; and fairness (Judaism 101; MyJewishLearning.com).
Important People Related to the Topic
- Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (also known as RamBam and Maimonides), was a Jewish scholar, philosopher, and physician in the 12th Century. He was born in Spain, and later lived in Morocco, Israel and Egypt. RamBam wrote the first code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah based on the Oral Torah from the Rabbinic tradition (Jewish Virtual Library). This work is a guide for all Jews on how to act in all situations, and includes a hierarchy of giving tzedakah. According to RamBam, there are eight levels of tzedakah, the least praiseworthy being "giving begrudgingly" and the most praiseworthy being "enabling the recipient to become self-reliant" (Judaism 101).
Related Nonprofit OrganizationsÂ
- HADASSAH, founded in 1912, is the Women's Zionist Organization of America. It is a volunteer women's organization whose "members are motivated and inspired to strengthen their partnership with Israel, ensure Jewish continuity, and realize their potential as a dynamic force in American society" (http://www.hadassah.org).
- Jewish National Fund (JNF) considers itself the caretaker of the land of Israel on behalf of its owners—Jewish people everywhere. JNF commits to improving the quality of life for all Israelis through the next century and beyond (http://www.jnf.org).
- Areyut, reaches out to Jewish day schools and congregational schools, regardless of affiliation. The organization offers a unique opportunity for schools to create innovative and meaningful programs to make traditional values such as chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam a reality for both students and educators (http://www.areyvut.org).
Many Jewish organizations provide pushkes to their members to promote giving in the home. However, one can create his or her own pushke to be used for any cause.
Related Web Sites
Ahavat Israel Web site, at http://www.ahavat-israel.com/ahavat/index.asp, is based in Israel. The site was designed to assist the Jewish Nation reach their ultimate goal of creating an environment of love for the Jewish people, love for the Torah, and love for Eretz Israel, the land of Israel.
The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise's Jewish Virtual Library Web site, at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org, exists to "strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship by emphasizing the fundamentals of the alliance" through the development and sharing of social and educational programs. The Jewish Virtual Library can be used as a resource for many topics in Judaic and Israeli studies. There is a Jewish Learning section on tzedakah.
Judaism and Jewish Resources Web site, at http://shamash.org/trb/judaism.html, is a site offering links to an array of Jewish resources found on the Internet including books, Jewish Community, Holocaust and Art, and more.
Tracey Rich founded Judaism 101 Web site, at http://www.jewfaq.org/tzedakah.htm, an online encyclopedia of Judaism. The site was created to provide "basic and general information about Judaism, written from a traditional perspective" to the average consumer. It contains a wealth of information about Jewish belief, traditions, customs, and much more. There is a lengthy section about the meaning of tzedakah, the obligation to perform tzedakah, and the levels of tzedakah.
MyJewishLearning.com Web site, at http://www.myjewishlearning.com/daily_life/Tzedakah.htm, offers Jewish learning for people from all religious and educational backgrounds. It contains information about all things related to Judaism and Jewish tradition, history, culture, and daily life. The site provides a guided learning section about tzedakah, highlighting its history, why it is important, and how to practice it.
Bibliography and Internet Sources
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. Accessed 2 June 2004. http://www.dictionary.com.
Jewish Virtual Library. Maimonides/Rambam. [cited 2 June 2004].
Jewish Virtual Library. Jewish Learning: Tzedakah. [cited 25 May 2004].
Judaism 101. Tzedakah: Charity. [cited 25 May 2004].
Learning to Give. Learning to Give: Vocabulary. [cited 6 October 2004]. http://www.learningtogive.org/materials/vocabulary.asp.
MyJewishLearning.com: The Personal Gateway to Jewish Education. Tzedakah: Charitable Giving. [cited 25 May 2004].
Plaut, Gunther, W. The Torah: A Modern Commentary/English Opening. Urj Press, 1981. ISBN: 0807400556.
Rosten, Leo. The Joys of Yiddish. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968. ASIN: 0070539758.
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