What does it mean to “do Tzedakah Jewishly”?

Judaism offers many ways to do Tzedakah. Several of the principles, values, techniques, and strategies are unique to Jewish tradition. In addition, while it is true that some of the fundamental concepts may have elements common to other systems of giving, Judaism places a different emphasis on those concepts. Furthermore, the organic and dynamic interplay of the Jewish concepts with acts of Tikkun Olam provides a distinct approach to discovering the real needs of others. The Jewish way of giving becomes most evident when you examine exactly how these needs are to be met.

“Doing Tzedakah Jewishly” involves two essential elements: (1) Giving your money away according to distinctly Jewish values and guidelines, and (2) your actual Tzedakah decisions, i.e., how much you give to Jewish programs and how much to general programs.

1. Jewish guidelines for proper Tzedakah giving are as necessary to a civilized, ordered society as traffic laws, fire codes, and fair rental contracts. Tzedakah directives are established to allow you, the giver, to
be more efficient in your desire to benefit others. You should be able to easily integrate Jewish practices into contemporary life, American laws, and the latest electronic tools such as e‑mail and the internet.

Most important, once you are familiar with Judaism’s procedures and rules, you will find that there is vast room for individuality and creativity in your own giving. You can work behind the scenes, “on the front lines”, or do some combination of both. Whichever way you do it, you should never have reason to doubt that you are making a difference.

2. Thousands of years of Jewish experience should offer guidance as you consider how much to give to Jewish needs and how much to needs beyond the Jewish community. Among several factors to
consider are:

  • Jewish tradition does not provide an absolute, easy‑to‑follow “chart” which outlines, “12% to this category of needs, 9% to that type of program, etc.” For example, some texts teach that Tzedakah’s first priority is saving lives. Other passages in traditional Jewish literature give precedence to local needs in contrast to those far away. Still others stress the priority of Israel’s needs, redeeming captives, supporting Torah study, as well as giving to Jewish and/or non‑Jewish needs. All of these texts indicate that their recipients should be the most important beneficiaries of Tzedakah. I have found no clear text that ties all of these positions together and gives an authoritative list of “first priorities”.
  • Jewish tradition certainly allows and, indeed, encourages contributing to causes and needs beyond the Jewish community, as exemplified by the outpouring of funds for victims of national disasters or international disasters including devastating hurricanes or for the survivors of an Asian tsunami.
  • It would be important to learn:
    (1) How much money non‑Jewish organizations and individuals give to support Jewish needs.
    (2) It would also be helpful to review recent studies about the children and grandchildren of wealthy Jews who have inherited enormous sums of money. These studies reveal a disturbing trend: While the descendants may continue to contribute the same absolute amount of Tzedakah dollars as their parents or grandparents, they are giving significantly smaller percentages to Jewish needs. These factors should also help you determine how much Tzedakah from Jewish people is needed to provide for the needs of the Jewish community.
    (3) You will want to review the overall and the specific needs of the various organizations benefiting the Jewish community. As described elsewhere in this guide, for Jewish Tikkun Olam programs that particularly appeal to you, you will want to research how efficiently they accomplish their goals.
  • The uniquely crucial needs of Israel and its people. In your own giving, you will want to consider how much your own support will make a difference.

Your Jewish Identity

Most likely, your own sense of Jewish identity will largely determine both to what degree you give Jewishly and how much you give to Jewish Tzedakah programs. However you identify with your Jewishness, it is important to remember that there is no need to feel defensive about giving to Jewish needs. Being Jewish, it is natural for you to care about your own, and to act to assure the wellbeing of your own. Native Americans are not defensive about supporting the needs of Native Americans. The same is true for African Americans and other ethnic, racial, or religious groups. While there are advocates of strictly universalistic giving, every group still donates to programs with which they have common ties. “Particularistic” Tzedakah is perfectly acceptable.

The following three quotes may help you articulate the suitability of your “particularistic” choices:

1. Solomon Schechter, one of the great Jewish scholars of the early 20th century, wrote, “We can no more have Jews without Judaism, than Judaism without Jews. We Jews have proven that we can survive difference, but not indifference.

2. In one of his sermons, my teacher, Rabbi Saul Teplitz, wrote, “Often, one finds a phrase on theater tickets that reads: ‘Void if detached.’ So, too, Jewish life becomes void when it is detached from the practices and principles of Judaism, from synagogue and prayer, from Torah and study.” Rabbi Teplitz and I have discussed this, and he most certainly agreed that his list should include “and doing Tzedakah as Jews and for Jews.”

3. Finally, returning to our early classic Jewish sources, Hillel’s famous words certainly come to mind:

?אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי? וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי

If I am not for myself, then who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”  (Pirkay Avot 1:13)

Reversing the order of Hillel’s phrases, I translate:

If I am only for myself, what am I? But if I am not for myself as well, who will be for me?

To summarize: “Doing Tzedakah Jewishly” encompasses two important features: (1) You will want to absorb the unique Jewish material on Tzedakah by whatever method of study you do best. (2) How you understand your own Jewish identity will display itself in the practices and emphases of your own Tzedakah giving.

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."