The Jewish Art of Giving

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we learn the commandment of giving tzedakah, “…you shall not harden your heart and clench your hand against your brother the pauper. But you shall surely open your hand to him and surely lend to him enough for his want that he has” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). Despite appearing as just another commandment in the Torah, tzedakah has always been viewed differently throughout Jewish history.

Redemption and tzedakah became synonymous in the minds of the rabbis of the Talmud. The messianic dream of a repaired world could only become a reality when giving became the Jewish priority as Isaiah stated, “Zion will be redeemed through judgment and those who return to her through charity” (54:14). Philanthropy was not just something the rabbis discussed and taught about, but was a key part in their roles as rabbis. Rabbi Abba for example would often bundle coins in a sheet and hang it over his shoulder so the poor could take the money without being seen (Ketubot 67b). Everyday Mar Ukva would also secretly throw money under the door of the poor. Finally, Rambam argued, “We are obligated to be careful with regard to the mitzvah of charity to a greater extent that all [other] positive commandments, because charity is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham.” (Mishneh Torah, Matnot Aniyim 10:1).

With that being said, here are my top 8 rabbinic quotes on tzedakah…

  1. “By the side of the poor stands God Himself, pleading for His strikes children” (Vayikra Rabbah 36).

Many make a distinction between commandments between Man and God (i.e., sitting in a sukkah) from commandments between Man and his fellow (i.e., giving tzedakah). The rabbis here teach that such a dichotomy is false. Every human interaction is also a divine encounter. This rabbinic saying challenges us to have the same level of respect and intention when we pass the homeless as we do when we stand in synagogue as the Torah passes by us because God is certainly present in both moments.

  1. “Even a poor Man who lives on charity should practice charity” (Gittin 7).

This is not commanded out of cruelty but out of necessity. The act of giving is central to the human condition. Giving is a profound way for the poor to restore their own dignity. Everyone needs to feel like they can contribute, however small it may be.

  1. “Greater is he who practices charity than all the sacrifices” (Sukkah 49b).

For hundreds of years, sacrifices and the Temple were the center piece of Jewish life. And still we mourn and fast throughout the year remembering the destruction of the Temple in all its different stages. Yet, the Sages teach us that tzedakah is more important. Imagine what the world would look like if we fasted every time we missed an opportunity to give tzedekah. If the Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred it surely will only be rebuilt through senseless love. What better way to begin than giving to a stranger in need?

  1. “Charity promotes peace, and he who gives much charity will bring great peace on earth and above” (Zohar I 200b).

In a world filled with such violence and hate the notion that peace is achievable seems like a distant dream. The task of transforming the world seems impossible and often holds us back from acting. But at the times one gives of himself and his money, the world is at peace, even if it’s only for a second. For a moment, you single handily brought peace to the entire world.

  1. There was a pious man with whom Elijah would visit and walk. However, when that man made a watchman’s door at the gate of his yard, and thus prevented the poor people from visiting his house, Elijah refrained from visiting” (Bava Batra 11a).

Sheltering ourselves from the suffering of others is not the Jewish way. We cannot sit in our homes and rejoice while the basic need of others are not being met. This why begin the Passover Seder by opening the front door and inviting in the hungry, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat! All who are needy, let them come and conduct the Passover Seder!” The Rambam powerfully explains, “…a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut” (MT Yom Tov 6:18).

  1. “Rabbah who merely studied Torah, lived forty years. Abaya I who studied the torah and  and also practiced benevolence, lived sixty” (Rosh Hashanah 18a).

Learning for its own sake has a value, but learning that leads to action is infinitely more valuable. The Torah can only fully realize it’s purpose when it leaves the houses of study and positively influences the world around it. More than Torah needs to be studied it must be lived.

  1. “Charity equals in importance all the other precepts combined” (Bava Batra 9a).

Giving tzedakah is not just another commandment in the Torah, but rather representative of all 613. At its core, the Torah seeks to cultivate a compassionate and giving individual. Despite the complexities and scope of Jewish law, the simple act of dropping a coin in a poor man’s cup is comparable to completing and adhering to the entire Torah.

  1. “R.Joshua Ben Korhah said. Anyone who shuts his eyes from the obligation of charity is like one who worships idols” (Ketubot 68a).

One who fails to give to the needy is considered an idol worshiper because he now worships money and himself, not God. Giving tzedakah is an important reminder that everything we have comes from God, therefore it is not our money to withhold. Withholding from the needy is completely antithetical to everything that Judaism is built upon and is therefore considered idol-worship.

Finally, it should come as no surprise that we read this parsha as we enter the month of Elul, a time where we begin to ask God for compassion as He prepares to judges us all. If we truly want God to grant us compassion and mercy we first must be willing to show compassion to those around us.

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of Base BKLYN in Crown Heights and the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul.
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