Charity box (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)
charity box

The Hebrew word for charity also means “righteousness.”

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Ki Tisa” (Exodus 30:11-34:35) and in it we read about the “half-shekel” contribution that everyone had to contribute. This half-shekel coin may have been the very first Jewish communal charity collection, and it was used to purchase sacrifices and other essential communal needs.

So on that note, let’s discuss tzedaka, charity, in Judaism. Tzedakah is a Hebrew word which means “righteousness” though it is the word used for charity, as well.

Tzedaka is a religious obligation just like the observance of kosher or Shabbat. Indeed, just like Shabbat must be observed by both the rich and poor, so must charity be “observed” by both rich and poor.

We are taught that the meaning of the verse, “Do not steal from a poor person” (Proverbs 22:22), is that we should view money as belonging to God who entrusts us to distribute charity appropriately. We are also taught that the mitzva of tzedaka can cancel out unfavorable decrees.

In addition to the general mitzva of tzedaka, many Jews commonly practice “ma’ser kesafim”, tithing 10% of their income to support those in need.

One must be very careful about how one gives out tzedaka money and to ensure that the recipient, whether a person or an institution, is worthy and qualifies to be called “tzedaka.”

There is an ancient Jewish tradition to keep a “pushka” in the home. A pushka is a charity box which allows family members to contribute to charity at frequent or spontaneous intervals. The word “pushka” means “a can” in Yiddish and Polish. The Jewish National Fund’s “blue box” is probably the most well-known and iconic Jewish pushka ever.

Both men and woman are obligated to give charity. A married woman, however, is essentially exempt from giving charity as she fulfills her mitzva through her husband’s donations. As such, it is best that a woman be sure that her husband approves of any charitable donations she wants to make. Nevertheless, it is permitted for a married woman to give a small amount of money to charity at will and her husband cannot object.

That mitzva of tzedaka is actually extremely easy to fulfill, as the minimum amount required for its fulfillment is surprisingly low. As the sages write, “A person should never give less than one-third of a shekel per year.” (You read that correctly.) Which is why even a very poor person could manage to fulfill the mitzva of tzedaka sometime throughout the course of a year.

However, Maimonides writes that the optimal fulfillment of the mitzva is to give one-fifth of one’s income to charity, and no less than one-tenth.

Maimonides also famously codified eight levels of charitable giving, each one greater than the next.

8. The lowest level is to give charity unwillingly.

7. Giving an inadequate amount, but gladly and with a smile.

6. Giving to a poor person after being asked.

5. Giving to a poor person directly into his hand without being asked.

4. The benefactor does not know who the recipient is, but the poor person knows who the benefactor is.

3. The benefactor knows who the recipient is, but the recipient does not know who the benefactor is.

2. Neither the benefactor nor the recipient know who the other one is.

1. Offering someone a job so that they will not be dependent on charity.

The way Maimonides ranked these charitable approaches should inform our own attitudes.

Unlike most routine mitzvot that we perform, there is no blessing recited before fulfilling the mitzva of tzedaka. Two reasons are advanced for this.

One reason for this is that the mitzva of tzedaka is essentially dependent on the receiver in order to be fulfilled. If the receiver would decide, for whatever reason, not to accept tzedaka money, the mitzvah would remain unfulfilled and any blessing would retroactively be in vain.

Another reason offered why a blessing is not recited is that charity is a mitzva that all mankind can fulfill, whereas a blessing is only recited on mitzvot which only the Jewish people fulfill.

May we always merit to be on the giving end, and never on the receiving end!

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.

Your Predestined Income Will Always Be Yours

The Lesson of the Golden Calf

No Magic Fixes or Instant Holiness in Judaism

Discover Your Inspiration – and Run with it!

The Golden Calf Reveals the Secret to Golden Relationships

The Golden Calf: Misguided Passion or Ultimate Betrayal of G-d?

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