Tzedek vs. Tzedakah: Justice vs. Charity

Both are about righting the wrongs that are all too pervasive in our world.

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The term tzedakah, commonly understood as "charity," serves as a catch-all for many biblical commandments designed to help the poor, including leaving harvest gleanings and the edges of fields for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22), providing interest-free loans (Exodus 22:24), forgiving loans, and tithing (Deuteronomy 15:1-11 and Deuteronomy 26:12-13). The word "tzedek," which has the same root as tzedakah, appears carrying its now-common meaning of "justice" for the first time in Parashat D'varim. Though closely related linguistically, these two concepts each hold up a different ideal of righteousness in the Torah and in the eyes of the Rabbis.AJWS logo

Relationship & Proximity

One way that the obligation of tzedakah has been articulated is through a prioritization of giving based on relationships and proximity. Reading the commandment to "lend money to My people…[and] exact no interest from them," (Exodus 22:24) Rabbi Joseph, a 4th-century talmudic sage, says that the phrase "My people" teaches us that:

"[Given a choice between giving money to] a Jew and a non-Jew--the Jew has preference; the poor or the rich--the poor takes precedence; your poor [i.e. relatives] and the [general] poor of your town--your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town--the poor of your own town have prior rights." (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a )

This endorsement of prioritization of those closest to you in tzedakah is quite different from the mandate for tzedek that appears in our parashah, where God clearly forbids favoritism in judging legal disputes:

"[Judges must] …decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike." (Deuteronomy 1:16-17)

The Nature of Obligation

Why, in giving tzedakah, are our personal feelings of responsibility for those closest to us allowed to dominate, while in judging--tzedek--we are commanded to ignore those feelings that arise from the very real concentric circles of obligation around us?

The difference may lie in differing natures of obligation. The commandment to give generously is addressed to individuals and is dependent on their unselfish willingness to share their wealth. The Rabbis understood that if we feel kinship with a recipient, we give more; their understanding of human nature allows for the pull of personal relationships to affect how and when individuals choose to give.

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Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.