Ivory Soap, Nike, and Tzedakah

A certain phrase sticks out in a passage early on in the Talmud’s section of Pesachim (pages 8a bottom to 8b at the top): If a person says, “I am giving this sela (a coin of the time) to Tzedakah so that my child (variation: children) will live or that I will get into the Next World” — that person is a Tzaddik Gamur (a Tzaddik who is total, complete, perfect?).  Reactions range from jarring, upsetting, and dislike, to ambivalent, curious, and confused…and understandably so.

Several comments:

  1. Mostly, making us uncomfortable is the idea of reward or quid pro quo even for such a great human act as Tzedakah, particularly since it seems to contradict other teachings of rabbinic literature.
  2. About the child/children: the Hebrew sheyicheh/sheyichyu can mean anything from live, survive, recover.
  3. The text would be difficult enough if it only said “Tzaddik” instead of “Tzaddik Gamur.” Would it not have been enough to surprise us to have written Tzaddik, surely a rabbinic term for a very high level of human and Jewish achievement.
  4. We all know the term Tzaddik, but the “Gamur” part really raises our eyebrows. Here is a brief computer-scanned comparison of the number of times “Tzaddik” vs. “Tzaddik Gamur” appear: Mishna and Tosefta 4-0, Babylonian Talmud 201-21, Jerusalem Talmud 43-1, Tosafot 35-7, Maimonides 24-2, Shulchan Aruch 9-3.  I think the numbers reveal a clear hesitation on the part of our sources to speak of and hold up a 100% Tzaddik as a realistic goal for just plain simply, regular Jews.

I am certainly not equipped to solve the problems raised above, but I want to approach one or two other aspects of this text.

The text appears two other times in the Talmud (Rosh HaShana and Bava Batra).  In two places Rashi’s comment is the same, and out of the three he gives two different comments:

  1. “If he makes a habit of it” – I assume Rashi means giving Tzedakah regularly, even with those conditions.
  2. Tzaddik Gamur – in this act…he performed his Creator’s commandment to do Tzedakah. (By that fact alone, also wanting the other things is only secondary and doesn’t taint what he did.)

There is a variation on the reading of the text (e.g., the 11th century Aruch dictionary), namely, “…this is Tzedakah Gemura” – complete, perfect?, Tzedakah (and not Tzaddik Gamur).  This reading is close to Rashi’s second interpretation. It is the act itself that is crucial, the essence of Tzedakah.  I believe that is because of the benefit to the beneficiary, the repairing of some part of the world and life.  That’s where Nike comes in with its advertising campaign, “Just do it!”  (The one proviso is always that the money was not from ill-gotten gain.)

Now, I am sure, there are psychologists, grumpy people, nasty people, hurrumphers, cynics who would find some hidden darker motivation, since there is no such thing as absolutely pure generosity.  If you are old enough, you will remember Ivory Soap’s advertisement that the product was 99 44/100% pure.  They would say, no doubt, you can’t even get that close.

What is my personal opinion?  I’m all for downplaying motivation, desirable as it is that someone would give from the heart, kishkas, mind, and soul.  But if the person wants his or her name on the medical school, the Jewish day school, the chair in biblical studies, the plaque on the synagogue wall, even because it is an ego-trip and he or she, as it were, wants his or her name in big neon lights, I say, “Gezunterhayt — fine with me.”

One addendum: The Talmud teaches that Shabbat is 1/60 of the Next World, and even metaphorically speaking, we might have said that so-and-so’s Snickers cheesecake was “Ta’am Gan Eden,” a taste of Paradise.  So too (for at least part of the phrase), having done the act of Tzedakah, the giver may have already gotten that something feeling in his heart, kishkas, mind, and soul like the Next World.

About the Author
Danny Siegel is a well-known author, lecturer, and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American Jewish communities on Tzedakah and Jewish values, besides reading from his own poetry. He is the author of 29 1/2 books on such topics as Mitzvah heroism practical and personalized Tzedakah, and Talmudic quotes about living the Jewish life well. Siegel has been referred to as "The World's Greatest Expert on Microphilanthropy", "The Pied Piper of Tzedakah", "A Pioneer Of Tzedakah", and "The Most Famous Unknown Jewish Poet in America."
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