"Pushka" — The Jewish Tradition of Charity

Jews are known to be charitable. Many are the renowned charities of the world that have their roots in the efforts of charitable-hearted Jews.

The tradition of Jewish charity dates back to their earliest origins, to Abraham, the first Jew: "For I love him [Abraham] because he commands his children and household after him that they shall keep the way of G‑d to do charity and justice..."1

Besides the many commandments in the Torah instructing us to love our fellow man and be kind to the poor in specific ways, there is also an explicit commandment to "open your hand" to the poor, to give or loan them whatever they need to keep them from poverty.2 Jewish tradition is to give at least a tenth of our income (profit) to charity, and recommends giving a fifth as most praiseworthy.

Tzedakah means "doing right," implying an obligation to help othersIn fact, the Hebrew word for charity, "Tzedakah," means far more than just that. Charity implies kindness performed out the goodness of one’s heart, but which is by no means obligatory. Tzedakah, on the other hand, means "doing right," implying an obligation to help others — financially, materially, spiritually and in any way possible.

The Charity Box

The tradition of the charity box is not quite as old. But its roots are respectable, dating back to Scriptural times. During the period of the First Temple in Jerusalem, we find the prototype charity box: The Temple was falling into a poor state of repair, so the High Priest made a hole in the cover of a box, which he placed conveniently near the entrance before the altar, so that all contributions could be dropped in.3

During most of their history, charity boxes were bulky affairs permanently affixed in the synagogue. Many synagogues would have a charity box with separate sections (and chinks in which to place the money) for all communal organizations. Besides upkeep of the synagogue, every Jewish community would have its special groups to collect and disburse funds for hospitality, endowering poor brides, helping the sick, aiding the poor, upkeep of Torah students, interest-free loans and other worthy causes.

Besides giving donations directly to beggars who stretch out their hand (the Torah forbids us to send them away empty-handed), everyone, even the poorest, would regularly place coins in these boxes. Times especially appropriate for this were before prayer (mentioned in the Talmud), at the end of prayer, before doing various commandments, and before the start of Shabbat and Holidays — particularly women before lighting Shabbat and Holiday candles.

Around the end of the 18th century, the custom became prevalent to keep small charity boxes in every home. At that time, a large group of Chassidim had gone to live in the land of Israel, spending their time in Torah-study and prayer in the exalted sanctity of the Holy Land. The Chassidim remaining behind undertook to support them, each family would regularly donate its allotted sum. Outstandingly active in this cause was the renowned Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad, who arranged regular collection of the funds through a nation-wide system that was a model of methodical organization.

Our table is in place of the altar and can equally help atone, when we give charity before every mealHis son, Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (1773-1827), second leader of Chabad, in a remarkable letter mentions this custom of family charity boxes, calling for its widespread observance. The most appropriate place, he writes, for this "pushka" (Yiddish for box or can) is on the wall close to the table, so that everyone can place a coin or two there before sitting down to eat morning and evening. With our Temple now destroyed and no altar to help atone for our misdeeds, he explained, our table is in place of the altar and can equally help atone, when we give charity before every meal. He adds that this custom of affixing a charity box in a prominent place in the home is most appropriate to the general concept of charity, which should be practiced constantly.

Soon there was no Jewish home in Eastern Europe without its charity box. Many would use their box to collect for a favorite charity. Charities would usually would be local — our first obligation in Jewish law — but extended to other less fortunate communities, too.

The American Jewish Tradition

When Jews began migrating westward during the second half of the 19th century, they took their charitable habits with them. American Jew may sometimes have neglected other aspects of their traditions, but charity retained its central place in their hearts and deeds. For every worthy cause, Jewish and also general, local and abroad, American Jews lavished their hard-earned wages on those less fortunate. The impoverished living standards of the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe and other lands, particularly the pogroms and persecutions, aroused the hearts of American Jews to collect enormous sums to help them.

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880-1950), when he visited the United States in 1929-30, was deeply impressed with the philanthropic feelings and deeds of American Jews. "This is the great merit and privilege American Jewry has, to be in a position to give so much help to their brothers in other lands."

As time goes on, however, and we become accustomed to an abundance of material plenty, settling into a pattern of deep involvement in our careers and private concerns, we are in danger of losing this charitable tradition. Are our children absorbing this heritage of caring and giving to others with all their heart the way we saw it from our parents and grandparents?

Charity as a Helmet

It was during the early 1970’s, when there were several shocking terrorist attacks on Israeli men, women and especially children. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, deeply concerned for the physical and spiritual safety and wellbeing of every Jew everywhere, called upon Jews throughout the world to intensify observance of several precepts that our Sages tell us have the power to protect physically.

The merit of giving charity has the power to protect us from harm and prolong our lifeOne of the precepts the Rebbe called for all to intensify was tzedakah, giving charity. The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the merit of giving charity to the unfortunate has the power to protect us from harm and prolong our life. The merit of the good deed casts its mantle of protection not only over the giver but over all.

At that time, the Rebbe explained that charity can be compared in this respect to a helmet. Although a helmet does not guarantee its wearer total freedom from risk, it does greatly increase his chances of protection, saving his life in most cases.

As part of this "Tzedakah Campaign," the Rebbe suggested distributing charity boxes bearing the name of no specific charity, in order to encourage Jews to simply give charity — to whichever worthy cause they choose.

The Rebbe often stressed the importance of giving charity daily, especially before prayer when we need the special merit of charity to make more sure our prayers are received and answered. He also suggested that whenever a group studies Torah, they should, if possible, pray one of the daily prayers immediately before or after study, and always place a charity box on the table, thereby combining the merit of charity with that of Torah study and prayer.

On many occasions, the Rebbe mentioned the importance of having a charity box (in addition to Jewish holy books) in every home, office, shop and store, at banks, hospitals, army-bases and other public institutions, and also in every car and bus (where safety is especially urgent), particularly school-buses. And he emphasized that we should make sure to actually use these charity boxes regularly, preferably daily.

A Child’s Room of Charity

In 1987 the Rebbe added a new dimension to this. He called for every family to turn their home into a "House of Torah Study, Prayer and Charity" — the three "pillars upon which the world stands," as our Sages tell us.

He called especially for all Jewish children to turn their room, or the part of the room they use, into a special "mini-sanctuary," by keeping there their own prayer book, book of Torah, and charity box. He suggested making special attractively designed charity boxes with space on them to write each child’s Hebrew name (and title and/or surname), and first the Hebrew words "To G‑d belongs the world and everything in it."4 Every day, the Rebbe proposed, the child should spend some time there, saying a prayer or blessing, studying some Torah, and placing a coin in the charity box.

The Rebbe requested at one one time that local schoolchildren be brought to visit him with their own charity boxes, and he personally gave each of them who came a coin to place in his or her box.

Charity Starts in the Kitchen

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah 1988, the Rebbe introduced another novel development of this theme.

The Rebbe proposed that in every kitchen, permanently affixed, should be a charity boxSpeaking before an audience of thousands of women of all ages, he spoke about the central importance of food being kosher. Of course, it is a commandment of G‑d that must be obeyed regardless of any reason we may understand. Nevertheless, our Sages do tell us that food has a profound influence upon our character. Meat from a non-kosher animal, for example, can foster traits of cruelty, while kosher food, on the other hand, helps refine our character. This is especially important in the education of children, whose characters are in the process of developing.

The responsibility and privilege of keeping this precept properly rests upon the Jewish wife and mother more than other family members, because she is usually most involved in preparing meals. However, like all Jews trying to serve G‑d properly, she needs Divine assistance to ensure that the food is all truly kosher and prepared in the kosher way (especially these days when all food is prepared, partially or completely, outside the home so that she has no control over some stages of its preparation).

For her to merit receiving such Divine help, the Rebbe proposed that in every kitchen, permanently affixed in front of where the food is prepared, should be a charity box to aid those in need of the most elementary needs of food and drink. When the Almighty sees her giving charity, accompanied by philanthropic feelings towards those less fortunate, even those whom she has never met nor heard of, He will treat her, too, charitably, helping her ensure that her food be all kosher and also tasty!

Furthermore, by giving charity before her meal, she connects her own meal with that of the needy, considering their needs while taking care of her own and her family’s. Although the charity she now gives may not reach the poor for some time, meanwhile she already has the merit of the mitzvah.

Even on the Shabbat and Holidays, when she cannot give charity because money may not be held, the charity box will remind her of her Torah obligations to care for the needs of others less fortunate, and to give as soon as she may do so.

For this reason, the charity box should be in a prominent place in the kitchen, where visitors, neighbors and friends will notice it, so that they, too, will be reminded of their charitable obligations towards others.

When the charity box is affixed to the wall or elsewhere, Jewish law considers it a permanent and integral part of the house. Therefore the house may now be considered a "House of Charity," for part of it is permanently devoted to charity. In the same way, the charity box each child has should be affixed (with a nail etc.) in a prominent place on the wall of his or her bedroom, rendering the entire room a "Room of Charity," and setting an example to emulate for all friends who visit the room and notice it.

Coins for Charity — to Students and Workers

The Rebbe’s long chain of efforts to instill among Jews and non-Jews, too, the regular giving of charity reached its apex perhaps in the autumn of 1989.

The Rebbe proposed that every school and educational institution give its students at least one small coin each week (preferably on Friday before the Sabbath) for giving to charity. Similarly, every employer should give all workers a coin each week for giving to charity. This practice, the Rebbe recommended, should be adopted even among non-Jews, in order to encourage the spread of the practice of giving charity.