Giving to charity before prayer is rooted in the Talmud, which notes that “the ways of G‑d are not like the ways of mortals. How is it among humans? If a man brings a gift to a king, it may be accepted or it may not be accepted. Even if it is accepted, it is still doubtful whether he will be admitted to the presence of the king or not. Not so with G‑d. If a person gives but a small coin to a beggar, he is deemed worthy to receive the Divine Presence, as it is written, ‘I shall behold thy face in tzedek (charity).’1 ” Accordingly, says the Talmud, Rabbi Eleazar used to give a coin to a poor man and immediately begin to pray.2

So on an elementary level, giving charity before prayer every day (besides for Shabbat and Jewish holidays) is like giving a gift to the king before making a request. On a deeper level, it is with immense kindness that G‑d, who is infinite, provides for our finite (and sometimes petty) needs. We elicit G‑d’s kindness through giving charity and doing act of kindness.3

Rabbi Shmuel, the fourth rebbe of Chabad, would elaborate: Prayer must be with life. Through giving charity to a poor person and giving him life, one’s personal prayer is suffused with a great increase of 'aliveness.' " (When saying this, he motioned with his hand in an upwards gesture to indicate that the increase is beyond imagination.)

Indeed, his son, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber, would often seek out a pauper to give him food before starting to pray.4

When to Give?

When exactly is “before prayer”?

The most widespread interpretation is before services begin.

Now, since in most instances in the Talmud and Code of Jewish Law, "prayer" is a reference to the Amidah (Silent Prayer), some have the custom to give charity right before the start the Amidah.5

But it is somewhat problematic to actually make an interruption at that point in the prayers. Thus, others follow the custom of the Arizal, who (based on Kabbalistic reasons beyond the scope of this article) would give to charity while reciting the words ve’atah moshel bakol (“and You rule over all”) in Vayevarech David (“And David blessed . . . ,” pg. 35 in standard Kehot Siddur).6

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, notes that the reason for giving charity at that point is not the same as for giving charity before prayer. Therefore, the widespread custom is to give charity before the start of services (and then, following the Arizal, many have the custom to give again when saying ve’atah moshel bakol).7

The custom is to give charity before the morning (Shacharit) and afternoon (Minchah) prayers. Many, however, don’t give before the nighttime prayers (Maariv), based on the opinion of the Jerusalem Talmud8 and the Arizal9 that one should refrain from giving at night, since at nighttime the attributes of judgment are expressed powerfully and there is fear that the external forces may derive nurture.10 The Rebbe explains that this concern only applies to actively seeking out a charity box to give charity. If, however, you are approached by a needy person, you are always obligated to help him.11

Indeed, our sages tell us that “great is charity, for it it brings the redemption,”12 mirroring the words of Isaiah: “Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and her penitent through righteousness (tzedakah).”13

May it be speedily in our days!