The Power of Tzedakah

One of the important ideas Judaism brought to the world is that giving charity is not only an admirable and pious act, but a duty.

This week’s parasha speaks about the requirements of peah (i.e., leaving the corners of one’s field for the poor to harvest), and leket (i.e., allowing the poor to gather any produce that falls on the ground during the harvest).  In ancient times, these were the principal means of supporting the poor.  As the Jewish community transitioned away from a primarily agrarian economy, direct financial contributions – i.e., tzedakah (loosely translated as “charity,” but more accurately translated as “justice”) – became a core communal obligation.  Maimonides, writing almost 1,000 years ago, explained that every Jewish community must appoint a trusted gabbai tzedaka (charity officer) to oversee collection and distribution of money to the poor.  So universal was this practice that Maimonides remarked that he had “never seen, nor heard of, a Jewish community lacking a charity fund.”  In short, from a Jewish standpoint, supporting the poor is an essential element of civilized society, and it works best when all who are able feel obligated to contribute.

Today it is a common practice in Jewish communities to donate every day, by placing a coin or a dollar either in a tzedaka box in the synagogue during daily prayers, or at home.  These small daily contributions do not amount to a great sum of money and thus are largely symbolic – but they help people develop the good habit of giving regularly.  More recently, the practice has gone digital, with web sites like facilitating regular donations on autopilot.

In addition to discharging an obligation, the rabbis also saw giving tzedaka as a protective act.  I learned from Rabbi Levi Cooper, an expert on Hasidism, that in 1827 Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch sent a fascinating letter to the Jews of Orsha (today in Belarus), which was experiencing a pandemic, advising them to donate a coin not only every day, but every hour of every day.  The hope was that the merit of continuous charitable contributions would provide around-the-clock protection, sparing the city further suffering.

Whether or not one believes in such spiritual protective power, charity also provides an immediate, and indisputable, benefit to the giver.  It is a vehicle for one human being to reach into the world of another, instilling sensitivity and empathy and elevating character.

In responding to the difficult period facing the Jewish community today, it is certainly critical to rise up and fight for what is right – standing by Israel’s side, confronting antisemitism, and insisting that all institutions (with a special emphasis currently on universities) treat Jews with the same respect afforded to every other group.  But, in parallel, there is another equally virtuous and important response: to double down on acts of kindness, including tzedakah, which will make every contributor a better person, and thus provide lasting benefit to them as individuals and to society as a whole.

About the Author
Michael Rader is an attorney who focuses on patent and intellectual property litigation. Mike serves on the Board of Directors of American Friends of Leket Israel (which supports Israel’s National Food Rescue Organization, Leket Israel) and on the Board of Directors of Tzohar Israel Foundation (which supports Israel’s leading Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, Tzohar). He and his family reside in the New York area.