Tzedakah in the Jewish Tradition

The Rabbis regulated the giving and receiving of tzedakah even while recognizing that how one gives may be as important as how much one gives.

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How much should one give? Judaism, like many subsequent faiths, believes in tithing, that is, giving one-tenth of one's income for tzedakah. The Talmud also warns us against giving more than a fifth of one's income, thereby incurring the danger of ending up destitute and in need of tzedakah.

There are other ways of giving tzedakah besides the straight donation of money. (Maimonides enumerated a "ladder" of tzedakah with eight degrees of charity on it.) Supporting one's children after they have reached the age at which they are deemed capable of self-support, supporting one's parents, donating money to an individual who wishes to study Torah—all these are called meritorious.

Along these same lines, the Jewish community has a long tradition of establishing philanthropic organizations, ranging from burial societies to organizations like the Hebrew Free Loan Society, which gives interest-free loans to the needy, from funds to provide hospitality to wayfaring strangers to the traditional Passover funds to buy matzah and wine for poor Jews. Every town in which there is a Jewish community is required halakhically [by Jewish law] to have a charity fund that can disburse monies that cover a week's needs of a poor family.

Judaism is also concerned with the conduct of those who receive tzedakah. They are enjoined not to become dependent on others. The Talmudic sages urged even the scholar to take on menial labor rather than become a burden to the community, and many of them were laborers themselves.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.