To the outsider, or even to a member of the tribe, Judaism is often seen as a creed of dos and don’ts, thou shalts and thou shalt nots. The number of commandments appearing in the Torah is a staggering 613. They are roughly divided into three – one-third devoted to sanctuary and sacrifices; one-third to commandments specific to life in the Land of Israel; and the remaining third to appropriate interpersonal conduct.
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When the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, the first third essentially ceased to be relevant. When Judea subsequently lost its independence and the focus of Jewish life shifted to the Diaspora, the second third became largely inapplicable.
Modern Judaism grew out of that changed reality. From an ancient religion with hundreds of laws governing sacrificial rites and agricultural practices, Judaism had to remake itself when its Temple was destroyed and it lost territorial sovereignty in Israel. The upshot was a strong focus on sustaining community, and giving charity and doing for others became a cardinal element of Jewish life.
Numerous commandments relate to tzedakah, the Hebrew word for charity. As opposed to the word "charity" in English, root of the word – tzedek – means justice or righteousness.
Tzedakah can be fulfilled by giving money to the poor, to health-care institutions, to synagogues or Jewish educational institutions, or by giving assistance or doing good for others. Tzedakah is so hardwired into the Jewish faith that the Talmud in Tractate Baba Bathra 9a says: “Charity is equal in importance to all other commandments combined.”
Even so, there is no commandment to give tzedakah on a daily basis, but there are two holidays when it is customary to give tzedakah: on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and during Purim, when amid the frivolity is a clear commandment to give tzedakah, known as “matanot la'evyonim,” (gifts to the poor) over the course of the day.
In biblical times, Israel’s agrarian economy prompted the initiation of a series of laws governing charitable contributions to be deducted at source.
Leviticus 19:9-10 says: “And when you reap the harvest in your land, you shall not reap the corners of your field; neither shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the single grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”
Sheaves of wheat that fell to the ground during the harvest were to be left there for the poor. Immature clusters of grapes were left behind by the farmer. On top of these donations, all of the other produce is tithed. This helps to explain why while there may have been poor in ancient Israel, there was no begging – there wasn’t even a biblical word for it.
Different ways of giving charity
The Talmud, in Hagiga 5a, tells the story of Rabbi Yanai, who once saw a man give money to a poor man publicly. He said, “It would have been better for you not to have given him anything rather than giving to him as you did, causing him embarrassment.”
As this Talmudic statement makes clear, there are different ways of giving charity, some better and some worse. The 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides (Rambam) went so far as to codify the various levels of charity-giving, ranging from the most honorable form of charity to the least. The lowest form of charity is giving unwillingly or out of pity, while the highest is helping to sustain a person before he becomes impoverished or dependent on others – in other words, providing the recipient with the means of earning a livelihood, such as a substantial gift or helping him find employment.
Maimonides also argued that greater anonymity in charity giving lends itself to minimizing both humiliation of the recipient and hubris of the giver. Indeed, daily synagogue-goers still make a practice of putting a few coins each day into the tzedakah box; the funds are subsequently distributed among the poor.
In many ways, contributing to Jewish institutions and organizations and Israel has become the modern form of channeling Maimonides’ precepts. And as Jewish life has shifted away from daily synagogue attendance, institutions that raise funds and distribute them have in no small part supplanted the old religious institutions as a major expression of Jewish identity.
Jewish charity, however, does not stop at home. Jews around the world are distinctive in two ways. Although they form less than 3 percent of the overall U.S. population, they typically rank among the most philanthropic givers, according to multiple lists of the top philanthropists of recent years.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, most of the charity contributed by Jews is earmarked to non-Jewish institutions. (This is less true for Orthodox Jews, who favor their own community’s institutions.)
It is no wonder that tikkun olam has become the buzzword for living a Jewish life. Although it originated as a term used by Jewish mystics for performing any commandment that would dispel evil from this imperfect world, the words – literally, fixing the world – are nearly always used nowadays to describe acts of kindness performed for our fellow human being. Foremost among them is tzedakah, giving charity.