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What Is the Jewish Take on Charity?

What Is the Jewish Take on Charity?



Growing up, I had always been inspired by big-name philanthropists—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Cooper, Bill Gates, etc. Now that I am coming closer to Judaism and meeting and learning about Jewish philanthropy, I realize that giving tzedakah is operating on a whole different level than just giving what and when one feels like giving. Still, I am not completely clear about the difference between giving what we feel, and giving that which we are obligated. Can you enlighten me?


Giving “what and when I feel like it” stems from a mindset that the money I earn is the product of my own efforts, and when I choose to give charity, I am going beyond my duty. I am being generous with that which is rightfully mine.

The Torah teaches otherwise. We believe that everything that we have is a direct blessing from G‑d. Those who have been granted the means to give were chosen by G‑d to be the givers, as opposed to others who, due to reasons known to the Creator Himself, were chosen to be the receivers.

Banking has always been a Jewish profession, and in truth, every Jew is a banker. I may have money in my pocket, but it was merely deposited with me—with the trust that I will manage it wisely. Some of the deposited money is for me, and some is for me to dispense. If I misappropriate funds, G‑d forbid, the Depositor might find someone else to handle His money (maybe even the money earmarked for me . . .).

With this in mind, it is understandable why Judaism requires that, if possible, we should give whenever we see someone in need. If, by divine providence, I was exposed to someone’s lack, it’s a clear indication that I can do something about it. We always have to give what we can: if not money, at least a smile and an encouraging word.

This is aside from the minimum ten percent (maaser) of our earnings which must be set aside for charitable purposes.

The difference between the two attitudes toward charity expresses itself in another area as well. If I feel that I am giving due to my personal generosity and munificence, then I am rightfully deserving of recognition and honor. And if the recipient has to pay a little with his dignity in order to benefit from my largesse . . . well that’s just par for the course.

If, however, I am just dispensing money, just discharging my duty, then a) it’s not a cause for ego inflation, and b) the recipient shouldn’t have to pay with his dignity. We’re both just partners in the Depositor’s cosmic investment plan.

Best wishes,
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson

P.S. Though I am emphasizing the Jewish view on tzedakah, please don’t interpret this as disparagement of others who give. Giving to a good cause is great in G‑d’s eyes whether the benefactor is a Jew or non-Jew, whether it was done with the proper intentions or not. Though the philosophy is important, it’s the actual giving that counts most!

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Pam Texas September 17, 2017

Giving of free labor. It counts too. Right Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for December 17, 2015

There are two sides to this. For the person of lesser means, just giving anything is a great deed, but for the person that can give more but doesn't, then he has room for improvement. Reply

Jonathan Chiswell Jones East Dean December 16, 2015

'The actual giving that counts'. True. But what is the actual giving? The sum given, or the cost to the giver? So when a rich man gives £1,000, and it is just 1 percent of his income, and a poor man gives £1 which is 10percent of his income, who has given most. What is the actual giving? Reply

Milton Jones Huntsville , Alabama/USA November 11, 2011

Abraham and the King Abraham gave hospitality, not charity, to the King of Salem. Some commentaries take the king as being the righteous son of Noah; others say other figures. Abraham's homage to the king was the correct and necessary thing to do, but it was not charity. The king had no need for Abraham's gifts.
It may be taken perhaps as a model for giving dinners and other assistance to a student, as Einstein's parents did for the medical student who introduced the child Einstein to Science. The medical student did need the aid. But the King of Salem did not. Such aid as Einstein's family gave the medical student is more in keeping with RAMBAM's statement of primary social duty: One ought do nothing which does not increase one's understanding or contribute to the progress of civilization. Reply

Gavriel Eliezer ben Ze'ev Gershon Largo, FL November 10, 2011

Christian Tithing The tithing of Christians is based 100% on the biblical commands in the Tanach. When the early church fathers abandoned Judaism, they still retained that which they saw as useful to the new religion. Charity as a Christian value is not exactly the same as Tzedakah, because it is rooted not in what is "righteous" but in what is "good". They don't mean the same in Hebrew. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma November 8, 2011

giving I often feel that giving can be about money but also it can be about giving of one's self, as in writing with heart and soul, appeals on line for the environment, which will be presented to lawmakers. I like to use my gifts for charity, and often feel these gifts in the area of writing, might make impact, so it's a giving of my time for purposes of love.
We say, time IS money, so maybe this is another way of spending.

There is surely a place for both in our lives. Reply

Anonymous Toronto November 8, 2011

Excellent article and point about ego made at the end. I always wish I could give more and have to accept that G-d didn't mean me to be a great philanthropist. Reply

Carmen November 7, 2011

Maaser I understood in a better way the meaning of Tzedakah when I read Abraham giving Maaser to Malkitzedek ,last week.
I understood that men with Vision like Malkitzedek,even sparks of Malkitzedek’sVision ,are the correct recepients for Maaser.
I understood that if that "Vision"is not present in the recepient,that recipient must not obligatorily be given or be the correct recepient for Tzedakah, lest Tzedakah is thrown in an un-usefull ,and even pernicious, void.
I concluded that Tzedakah must indeed be a mindful act

I read, yesterday,by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, about pleasures,generosity,kindness and that they must be less instictive acts and more purposeful acts in order to bring mankind close to G-d through such acts,and giving Tzedakah to Malkitzedek's driven minds is one of the ways commanded by G-d to fulfill this purpose. Reply

ghudson castle rock, co-usa July 31, 2011

tzedaka is this similar to the Christian's tithing? giving ten percent of what is earned back to God as a charity? Reply

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