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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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Discussion (41)
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!
Yakov Israel
May 2, 2014
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.
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.
Scott Cunningham
Boca Raton, FL
March 29, 2012
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.
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.
John Phillips
Ulladulla, Australia
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.
ottawa, canada
March 24, 2012
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?
Ruth Housman
marshfield hills, ma
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.
John Phillips
Ulladulla , Australia
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.
ruth housman
marshfield, ma
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.
ottawa, canada