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“Charity” is commonly regarded as a basic tenet of Judaism. But in fact, the term tzedakah means something else entirely.

The Myth of Charity

The Myth of Charity


Jews don’t believe in charity.

Don't be misled by their legendary philanthropy, by their saturation of social and humanitarian movements, by their invention of the pushka, the meshulach and the UJA. Jews do not practice charity, and the concept is virtually nonexistent in Jewish tradition.

Instead of charity, the Jew gives tzedakah, which means “righteousness” and “justice.” When the Jew contributes his money, time and resources to the needy, he is not being benevolent, generous or “charitable.” He is doing what is right and just.

The story is told of a wealthy chassid who once received a letter from his rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, requesting him to give 200 rubles to save a fellow chassid from financial ruin. The wealthy chassid regularly contributed to his rebbe’s charitable activities, but this particular letter arrived at a financially inconvenient time, and contained a request for an exceptionally large sum. After some deliberation, the chassid decided not to respond to the rebbe’s request.

Shortly thereafter, the chassid’s fortunes began to fall. One business venture failed badly, and then another; before long he had lost everything.

“Rebbe,” he cried, when he had gained admittance to Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua’s room, “I know why this has happened to me. But was my sin so terrible to deserve so severe a punishment? And is it right to punish without warning? If you would have told me how important it was to give those 200 rubles, I would have carried out your instructions to the letter!”

“But you haven’t been punished in any way,” replied the rebbe.

“What do you mean? All my wealth has been taken from me!”

“Nothing that was yours was taken from you,” said the rebbe. “You see, when my soul came down to earth, a certain amount of material resources were allotted to me for use in my work. However, my days and nights are taken up with prayer, studying and teaching Torah, and counseling those who come to me for guidance, leaving no time for the task of managing all that money. So these resources were placed in the trust of a number of ‘bankers’—people who would recognize their duty to support my work. When you failed to carry out your role, my account with you was transferred to another banker.”

In our world, so flagrantly—and oft times violently—dichotomized by prosperity and poverty, there exist two general perspectives on wealth and property:

  1. That these are the rightful possessions of those who earned or inherited them. If they choose to share even a small a part of their possessions with others, this is a noble act, worthy of praise and acclaim.
  2. That the unequal distribution of the earth’s resources among its inhabitants is a travesty. Owning more than one’s share is an injustice, even a crime. Giving to the needy is not a “good deed,” but the rectification of a wrong.

Jewish tradition rejects both these views. According to Torah law, giving to the needy is a mitzvah—a commandment and a good deed. This means that, on the one hand, it is not an arbitrary act, but a duty and an obligation. On the other hand, it is a good deed—a credit to the one who recognizes his duty and carries out his obligation.

The Jew believes that material wealth is not a crime, but a blessing from G‑d. One who has so been blessed should regard himself as G‑d’s “banker”—one who is privileged to have been entrusted by the Creator with the role of dispensing the resources of His creation to others.

G‑d could have allotted equal portions of His world to all its inhabitants. But then the world would have been nothing more than a showpiece of G‑d’s creative powers, predictable as a computer game and static as a museum display. G‑d wanted a dynamic world—a world in which man, too, is a creator and provider. A world in which the controls have, to a certain extent, been handed over to beings who have the power to choose between fulfilling their role or reneging on it.

Thus, Jewish law requires every individual to give tzedakah, even one who is himself sustained by the tzedakah of others. If the purpose of tzedakah were merely to rectify the unequal distribution of wealth between rich and poor, this law would make no sense. Tzedakah, however, is much more than that: it is the opportunity granted to every person to become a “partner with G‑d in creation.”

Giving tzedakah is, above all, a humbling experience. Before us stands a human being less fortunate than ourselves. We know that G‑d could have just as easily provided him with everything he requires, instead of sending him to us for his needs. Here is a person who is suffering poverty in order to provide us with the opportunity to do a G‑dly deed!

By the same token, if divine providence places us on the receiving end of a charitable act, we need not be demoralized by the experience. For we know that G‑d could have just as easily provided us with all that we need Himself, and that our need for human aid is merely in order to grant another person the ability to do a G‑dly deed. Our “benefactor” is giving us money or some other resource, but we are giving him something far greater: the opportunity to become a partner with G‑d in creation.

In the words of our sages: “More than the rich man does for the pauper, the pauper does for the rich man.”

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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Yakov Israel Sheffield March 30, 2016

Excellent article! I love how the Torah corrects perspectives on worldly issues such as numbered above in points 1 and 2 in the article regarding the differing views on 'charity'.

For example, it would be quite hard to disagree with a humanitarian who claims that 'owning more than one's own fair share is an injustice' when in actual fact, it's a blessing from G-d, entrusted to His 'bankers' or stewards to allocate as G-d commands.

Again, what an excellent correction on perspective!

Today Rabah! Reply

jonny Bangkok May 2, 2014

Self The day when humans understand the value of Self, evils such as "charity" will evaporate with the need for fiat money, hoarded resources, controlled access to commodities (real or illusory), conflict, violence and more. All the evil confusion, perhaps; certainly, all confusion is evil.

The Selfish do not need. Self-reliance, self-sufficient, independence = need-free = Liberty. Without need, our eyes will be opened to the horror of the 'human' existence; emotional cannibals preying on their own young, racing towards M.A.D.

The Selfless need. Self-destructive, self-defeating, dependence = needy = Slavery. With need, we are blind to our reality.

In a selfish world, there would be no violence or conflict. War and hate are selfless pursuits. One day humans will stop perceiving humans as targets to reduce, but not today. Reply

Scott Cunningham Boca Raton, FL August 25, 2013

Unsolicited! Mar. 21, 2013 Ruth, I have a small charity I started back in 2010 for children in Colombia, South America. We don't practice this type of solicitations. This could be the reason we are floundering now. What you speak of is common practice among the bigger charities. They also sell their donor lists to other charities. But why would you give to American Indians? They have Casinos on their Reservations that drive in huge revenues and they don't pay taxes on this revenue. Reply

WM M F PHILLY, PA March 29, 2012

Give to those where you see a real need, in cash & time is excellent. John Phillips points out well about having a generous soul & heart. We should pay serious attention to how donations are divided by many of these collectors. In many cases we might note that the bosses are doing very well. Their efforts on behalf their banks` deposits in their names and that of their families is remarkable. Reply

John Phillips Ulladulla, Australia March 28, 2012

Give to where you can see results Ruth, Charities often take advantage of the generous heart. My policy is be voluntarily involved the charitable programmes where you personally see a need. Your encouragement and time is part of the contribution. Reply

astromuffy ottawa, canada March 28, 2012

To Unsolicited These and many other issues really peeve me about charity. I don't think you are alone in this. It's one thing not to expect to be thanked, it's another when people take advantage, in sublte ways like you mention, and not so subtle ways.

We may as well admit that some people are rewarded for giving, while others go anywhere from overlooked, to lambasted.

So I see your unwanted solicitation and raise you the politics of charity. Reply

Ruth Housman marshfield hills, ma March 24, 2012

Unsolicited! I wanted to say this, because it keeps on happening, and that is, when I send monies to a charity, I often get inundated, shortly afterwards, with continuing requests for support, and very often, as in American Indian charities, gifts of all kinds, that keep coming, that have to be beyond the value of my initial gift, so I wonder, how my gift is really being used. It's a conundrum, and I wonder, how others deal with this.

The charities seem legitimate, and probably are, but somehow, it bothers me, first, to get a request immediately following a gift, and also, to get gifts that keep giving, in order to feel that guilt of receipt, and then to give more.

And sure I feel guilt, but then again, I don't give again, because something seems not right in all this. Am I alone with these feelings?

Or am I wrong? Reply

John Phillips Ulladulla , Australia March 22, 2012

Communism or Charity? If money is the focus of wealth sharing then Governments probably try to do it for us. If our intention is to share equally our assets then Marxist philosophy was meant to do that. However as children of G-d we must give more than money we give ourselves to the welfare of others. "Love your neighbour as yourself". That is the principle of charity!. Organisations have been established to assist those in need of whom we may not be aware or have access. Our society is free to chose who we bless and be involved with; That is from the heart and that is Charity and not Communism. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma March 22, 2012

thank you for what is written above re my comment.

It's an important article for discussion and I enjoy pondering the views expressed. Reply

astromuffy ottawa, canada March 22, 2012

WM M F, Philly Thank you. I have to be brave enough to let the ice melt. Considering all the other dragons I have faced down, can that really be so hard? Resistence is pernicious, but this is where love starts for me.

I wish the same to you, and really everyone. If love were the order of the day it would be a very different world. Reply

WM M F PHILLY, PA March 22, 2012

Determining when our personal personnel file will be closed is something that is hidden from most of us. May you find health & joy on towards your 12Oth b"day. May you have many years with which to share joy & love & respect with many others. In so doing, you will long be a part of this world in the hearts & minds of others even when you are not actually able to strut on stage. Yes, you will live on. Reply

Lucy London March 20, 2012

Charity begins at home is used as an excuse by many, sadly. Firstly, Deuteronomy 15: 11 says ´open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy' It doesn´t say anything about the home or that we must have everything we need before we should attempt to help others. I might need a holiday but that doesn´t justify me wasting thousands to ski in the Alps for the fifteenth time when people are dying of hunger. As WMMF has said, ´we have an obligation to .. do justice to competing requests and to attempt to balance our output in each direction´. I think this means we Must enjoy our lives but we must not forget what is expected of us as conscious human beings– to do good in the world. It is a restrictive concept but for every purchase I think we Must ask ourselves: Is this purchase worth the good it could do in saving another from suffering? If we need petrol to travel, so be it. But is it really better that I buy a new shoes when I could buy someone clean water? No is the answer, money comes with responsibility. ;) Reply

astromuffy ottawa, canada March 20, 2012

To Ruth I must be drawing close to the end of my life, because what you say about love is coming so much into focus for me. It matters more than anything. I was indoctrinated with materialistic values which were bereft of any kind of meaning to me. Since this was my "real world" I embraced them, in the hopes that I would be embraced. It never happened. I have since rejected materialistic values and am now letting myself experience all the pain and heart ache at love unfufilled. I'm not just talking about romantic love, but all aspects of it. I want to spend the rest of my life making up for that. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma March 18, 2012

Philadelphia: the city of Brotherly Love I so totally agree with you WM from Philadelphia (above). Sometimes when we gift someone, we don't realize its impact. I just got a call from a friend who said, when her husband visited here with her, and he was dealing with serious prostate cancer, we "gave" them something, that gave them courage and hope, and that she has never forgotten this visit. From our perspective it was love, and the joys of having them visit, the privilege of spending time with two people and really getting to know them in a different way. Reply

WM M F PHILLY, PA March 17, 2012

Charity begins at which home? Do we start by looking at the nearby physical walls or perhaps at those who are a part of our home family or our spiritual home? Perhaps we have an obligation to sort this out, individually, in order to do justice to competing requests and to attempt to balance our output in each direction. In our efforts to act justly & balance that scale; we might keep in mind that 'charity' does not always mean money: It includes doing things. The donating of blood and things also count. Even a visit to the shut-in or mourner or performing some helpful acts are great forms of charity. Reply

WM M F PHILLY, PA March 17, 2012

'Does charity really exist in Judaism?' This question begs the discussion of the term 'charity' and how one understands it? This can be demonstrated by the expression "facing reality" if one interpretation of the Red Heifer commandment is that there is no real reality outside of Torah. (re: Ribaz` replies to the non-Jew & his students) We can then ask, too, if it is 'just' to participate in taking kick-backs and then returning almost all of that back to those from whom the ca$h was taken? What about when when super wealthy people & companies take from the less fortunate & then return some of it as a 'gift' to them? How do we regard a corporation that builds a health clinic with some of the money it makes by polluting the local water resulting in huge health problems? Reply

John Phillips Ulladulla, Australia March 16, 2012

The Myth of Charity There is no myth in the Greek concept of "agapae" from which we translate the English word "charity" its meaning is to give of onself expecting no personal refurn.It is an expression of love as a mother gives to her child or a soldier to his country. However there is reward as a result of personal sacrafice and it may not be reward to onself. That is the principle of the character of G-d that is to be reflected in our attitudes not for rewards but for blessing others. There may be various motives why people give but only G-d ultimately knows the heart. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma March 16, 2012

anonymity it is said that to give anonymously is the highest form of giving, and I do agree with the writer above about this. I also agree that it is wise to give to people to enable them to use the gift towards using their particular skills for whatever work they choose. Just giving money, is not necessarily the best use. I sat next to a young man at a Daniel Pearl benefit who was talking about how he would give, if he was in charge of a foundation, and I have never forgotten his wisdom, because in listening in I discovered he had it right, and he said, I would give to enhance the ability of those without, to make of themselves something, as in funding a business, the building of a water irrigation system, something really life enhancing for self and communities in need. If I ever come into that kind of money, I will seek him out, and hire him! Reply

Albert Hern Mexico city, Mexico March 15, 2012

Doesn't charity really exist in Judaism? Your article is very enlightning, and I do agree with you. However, the fact that tzedakah is a mitsvah does not mean that everyone will do it, just as many fellow jews do not observe shabbat or kashrut laws. In the end, since Hashem gives us free will do do as we please, either good or wrong, it is up to us to be G-dly or Ung-dly. Caritas in
Latin, meaning: dearness, affection / charity. It is because Hashem is dear to us that we follow His commandments and do them, ultimately we are free not to do them ( Not even Hashem will come to beat us right away if we don´t follow them). In the end, if we follow Hashem's commantments we will be gracious or affectionate to ourselves and if not we will suffer the consequences. Reply

Susan Texas March 14, 2012

Who is Blessed? If those with financial prosperity are blessed what is the status of blessing to those who are poor or sick? Poverty is not a curse from G-d but a test of our desire according to ability to exert compassion for our fellow humans. It is an error to believe that those who are suffering are not blessed. Perhaps their suffering is a gift to those humans to enable them to discover the charity or justness within ourselves. Without them how can we express our duty to help others with less?
Most people in prosperous countries have no concept of what true poverty is. Villages all over the world lack clean water or any water at all. They are suffering from droughts and lack even the necessary food, water and medical supplies to live. Is your gift only to those who are already comfortable in their lifestyle and a potential banker for you or is it to those who are desperate for the barest necessities of life? Reply