Erica Brown

Making A Jewish Case For Giving

If our destinies in the coming year can be changed by repentance, prayer and charity, then let’s start out with the easiest of the three: tzedakah. With minimal effort we can help the many organizations and individuals who ask us for assistance at this season. After all, we are mandated by Jewish law to give a tenth of our earnings to charity. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the Jewish community takes this practice seriously.

One way we can make Jewish charitable giving a bigger part of our lives is by reading about it. When it comes to tzedakah, most people would say the brownie points come from the giving, not from the learning. And yet, following the Talmudic debate about what is more important, the performance of a commandment or study, the ruling is that learning comes first because it leads us to action (Tractate Kiddushin 40b). Action will not necessarily lead us to learning. Learning the particulars of tzedakah intellectualizes and strengthens our practice. If the devil is in the details, perhaps the angel is there too.

I have found that in the many years I have studied Jewish texts with philanthropists, the subject of charity is a favorite discussion topic. People who are serious about giving find their own charitable practices enhanced and enlarged when they take time to review what Jewish law has to say.

If Jewish philanthropies spent more time educating donors about Judaism and worrying less about direct mail and campaign slogans, we’d find Jewish giving on the rise. Sadly, many Jewish leaders and communal professionals, including fundraisers, have virtually no Jewish literacy when it comes to the laws of tzedaka. They lack the elemental Jewish language to make the case from a Jewish framework.

My recommendation: learn, then give. Take yourself to a class, or in the immortal words of Ethics of the Fathers, find yourself a teacher. And buy a book or two to begin the journey of the mind. Believe me, it will make reaching into the pocket a lot more meaningful. Here are some suggestions:

n A Guide to Jewish Practice: Tzedaka, 2005, by David Teutsch;

n Tzedakah: Can Jewish Philanthropy Buy Jewish Survival?, 1997, by Jacob Neusner;

n There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law & Tradition, 2010, by Rabbi Jill Jacobs

The American Jewish community, in particular, has done a masterful job of creating a network of Jewish charities in most cities where Jews live. For those of you interested in the history or sociological trends of Jewish giving in America and elsewhere, you might want to read one of these:

n Contemporary Jewish Philanthropy in America, 1991, by Barry A. Kosmin;

n Charitable Choices: Philanthropic Decisions of Donors in the American Jewish Community, 2009, by Arnold Dashefsky;

n From Charity to Social Justice: The Emergence of Communal Institutions for the Support of the Poor in Ancient Judaism, 2001, by Frank M. Loewenberg;

n Historical Survey of Jewish Philanthropy from Earliest Times to Nineteenth Century, 1969, by Ephraim Frisch

We don’t only think of tzedakah as a financial commitment. We regard it as a path of righteousness that manifests itself in the way we spend our money and in the way we spend our time. To think about how you can be a better volunteer and commit yourself to social justice this year, try:

n Building a Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish Community, 2009, by Charles Simon;

n Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World, 2008, by Sidney Schwarz.

And please don’t leave the kids out. It’s not only that charity starts young; it’s got to be taught and thought about with children. What could be better than to sit with your young child over hot chocolate and read Leah Shollar’s, A Thread of Kindness: A Tzedakah Story? Make charity fun, and don’t think that making another pushke (charity box) is the end of it. As they grow, let their analytical skills grow: how they save for it, how they give it and who is best served by it. Some families create an annual tzedakah project with their children before the High Holy Days, thinking together about allocating their charitable giving in the coming year

You can find Jewish texts and advice about charity in virtually every Joseph Telushkin book and many of the books put out by Jewish Lights publishing. A nice general book about charity is Julie Solomon’s Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Givem, 2003. I’ll conclude with her words, “Giving should not be an afterthought…we are not measured by what we have, but by what we give to one another.”

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator. Her forthcoming book is Confronting Scandal. She can be reached at

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).