“We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah [charity] than any other positive commandment, because tzedakah is the sign of the righteous person.” Thus wrote Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) in his Mishneh Torah.
The importance of tzedakah in Judaism cannot be doubted, but the translation of the term into English is problematic. The usual English translation is ‘charity’, but this word has very different connotations from the Hebrew word tzedakah. The English word ‘charity’ is derived from the Latin word caritas meaning love or dearness; hence the English word charity implies that the motivation is love or concern for the recipient. Similarly, the English word philanthropy is derived from two Greek words meaning ‘love of man’. Whilst giving ‘charity’ is generally regarded positively, there is no obligation to do so. In contrast, the Hebrew word tzedakah means ‘righteousness’ if translated into English very literally and has strong connotations of being an obligation.
What, then, does the Torah say about tzedakah? “If your brother sinks in poverty, then you shall strengthen him.” (Leviticus 25:35) “Do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy brother.” (Deuteronomy 15) “When you reap your harvest, do not pick the [fallen grapes] … or harvest the ends of your field. [These goods] must be left for the poor and the stranger.” (Leviticus 19). ”When you lend money to the poor man among you, do not press him for repayment.” (Exodus 2)
Tzedakah expresses a Jew’s duty to their fellow humans. Accordingly, lack of tzedakah is a sin. Sodom was destroyed because of its people’s meanness, said the prophet Ezekiel. And Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah stated: “Anyone who shuts his eyes from the obligation of tzedakah is like one who worships idols.”
Jews may not judge others as inferior just because they are poor. Judaism holds that all earthly possessions belong to God. So a Jew’s worth is measured in mitzvot (commandments) and not in material goods.
The Jewish concept of tzedakah is concerned with the dignity of the recipient. No one should feel beholden to another, or in any way ashamed to receive. In fact, it is sinful for a Jew to refuse charity if they are truly in need.
On seeing a poor man getting money in public, Rabbi Yannai said: “Better not to have given him anything, than to have given and caused humiliation.” In his Eight Degrees of Charity, Maimonides wrote that the seventh degree is when neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other.
Put these two concepts together, the absolute good of giving and the inviolable dignity of all, and a third conclusion is reached: Even the poor should be allowed the joy of performing tzedakah. The Talmud explains: “When a person gives even a prutah [the smallest coin] he or she is privileged to sense God’s presence.”
Encouraging a sense of tzedakah in others is itself a mitzvah. “They that lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever,” says Daniel 12:13. Nor is tzedakah only meant for Jewish beneficiaries. The Talmud states that Jews should give to all peoples, because by so doing, they foster peace in the world, tikun olam.
On Yom Kippur Jews say “Prayer, repentance and charity can avert the evil decree.” Giving tzedakah even emulates the Shekhinah, God’s divine presence. As Maimonides wrote “No joy is greater than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.”
The eighth and highest degree of tzedakah, wrote Maimonides, is giving so that the recipient becomes self-sufficient and has no more need for tzedakah.
Rabbinic tradition sets a guideline of giving one tenth of one’s income to tzedakah. But one should also not give so much that they impoverish themselves – after all, this is counter-productive as it leads to people no longer being able to give tzedakah themselves and instead needing to receive it.
In traditional Jewish homes it is still customary for there to be at least one tzedakah box where funds for the needy are put. Jewish tradition encourages us to give tzedakah just prior to lighting the Sabbath candles on Friday night or on any other joyous occasion as a way of remembering and doing something practical for the less fortunate.
Maimonides’ 8 Levels of Charity
The medieval rabbi and philosopher Maimonides (also known as Rambam) described the followng 8 levels of charity from highest (most meritorious) to lowest (least meritorious):
1 Giving an interest-free a loan or other financial assistance which enables the recipient to gain the means to financially support themselves and no longer rely financially on others
2 giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient (done through a discrete intermediary)
3 givinig tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient
4 giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient
5 giving tzedakah before being asked
6 giving tzedakah after being asked
7 giving tzedakah willingly, but an insufficient amount
8 giving tzedakah grudgingly
Aish HaTorah: Why Give Charity? (video)
Aish HaTorah: How and To Whom Should You Give Charity? (video)
Jewish Virtual Library: What is Tzedakah?
Jewish Virtual Library: Eight Levels of Charitable Giving
My Jewish Learning: Tzedakah in the Jewish Tradition