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 (fundraiser) 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.”