It is a sad fact: when the economy is suffering, hardest hit are charitable organizations, and the needy people who desperately rely on the services they provide. This at a time when these charitable causes have to expand their services to accommodate a sadly growing clientele.

In the U.S., nearly 94 percent of nonprofit fundraisers recently surveyed said that the economy is currently having a negative effect on fundraising. In Britain, one in three organizations expects to lay off staff within months, and corporate donations have fallen by twenty percent.

Though unfortunate, this begs the question: is it indeed inappropriate to scale back on charitable disbursements when times are tough, when we are curtailing our spending in so many other lifestyle areas?

That depends on how we view our contributions.

Ultimately we are G‑d's bankers; He entrusts us with an additional sum—which we are meant to disperse to charitable causesThe Rebbe once explained that "charity" is actually an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew word tzedakah, the age-old word used to describe financial assistance provided to the needy. The literal meaning of tzedakah is "righteousness." It's simply the right and just thing to do; whereas the word charity denotes an act that goes beyond the call of duty, an elective though praiseworthy act.

Whose Money?

According to Jewish tradition, a minimum of 10% of our net earnings are earmarked for tzedakah. It is our belief that ultimately we are G‑d's bankers; in addition to the monies intended for our personal use, He entrusts us with an additional sum—which we are meant to disperse to charitable causes.

G‑d created a world of givers and takers. And while He provides for all His creations, he desired that His beneficence reach the "takers" via the wallets of the givers.

When doing so, we are not going beyond the call of duty; we are merely faithfully discharging our responsibility.

"Charity" is a luxury; during difficult times we cut back in this area. Tzedakah, on the other hand – i.e the 10% that we donate – was never ours in the first place; and delivering it to its intended recipients is certainly not a luxury that can be scaled back.

(It should be noted, however, that a person who has only enough to cover his or her most rudimentary needs is exempt from this tithe.)

G‑d's Test

The following is adapted from a letter the Rebbe once wrote to a veteran businessman who had fallen on hard times:

Undoubtedly we must view this is a test from G‑d. Though He knows that the Jewish heart is always open, and at all times ready to heed the call of Torah and mitzvot, still, He tests us in order to satisfy the reluctant-to-believe angels of the Heavenly Court.

G‑d therefore says to them: "See, despite the natural tendency to decrease in tzedakah when business is not as it once was, here is a wise Jew, who understands that this is only an attempt to test him. He also understands that when he will withstand the test – and will then understand the real intent behind it all – not only will his business be as prosperous as beforehand, but it will be better than before..."

Our Test

King Solomon says in Proverbs (19:17): "He who is gracious to a poor man is [in fact merely] extending a loan to G‑d, and He will repay him his reward."

All tzedakah that one gives is repaid in full – with plenty of "interest" too – during one's lifetimeOne never loses by giving tzedakah. Whereas the reward for virtually all mitzvot is granted in the World-to-Come, all tzedakah that one gives is repaid in full – with plenty of "interest" too – during his or her lifetime.

Normally it is forbidden to test G‑d (as per Deuteronomy 6:16). Practically this means that one may not do a mitzvah with the expectation that G‑d will reward the act by fulfilling a particular need.

Tzedakah is the exception. As the Prophet Malachi proclaimed (Malachi 3:10): "Bring all the tithes into the treasury so that there may be nourishment in My House. Test Me, if you will, with this, says the Lord of Hosts, [see] if I will not open for you the windows of the heavens and pour down for you blessing until there be no room to suffice for it."

Accordingly our Sages say (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 4a): "One who says, 'I am giving money to charity on the condition that my son recovers from his illness,' is a righteous person!"

True Wealth

A story is told about Rabbi Shimshon Wertheimer, a seventeenth century scholar, who was ordered by the German-Roman Kaiser to present an accounting of all that he owned. When Rabbi Wertheimer submitted his financial ledger, the Kaiser accused him of lying and treason, for he had personally gifted Rabbi Wertheimer a castle that alone was more valuable than the sum total on his ledger.

Rabbi Wertheimer explained that the Kaiser had asked for an accounting of all that he owned, whereas the castle had been a gift that could be revoked.

"Then what is recorded here?" demanded the Kaiser.

"This is my tzedakah," explained Reb Shimshon. "This is truly mine, even the Kaiser can not take this away."