Tzedakah: How to give

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
By Jackie Ross

Tzedaka (צדקה) is often translated as 'charity', but the Jewish concept of tzedakah is so much more than that. Let us explore.

Charity is something that is nice if you give, but isn't really an obligation, like paying taxes. Tzedakah is definitely an obligation for Jewish people: there is a mitzvah to give at least 10% of your net income to people in need. The root for tzedaka צ.ד.ק is the same as the root for tzedek, which means righteousness or fairness. Tzedakah is a way to balance out the financial inequalities in the world. Often people say, "If I had a lot of money, I would love to be a philanthropist and donate to X, Y, and Z causes." In Judaism, each one of us is considered to be a philanthropist, no matter how much or how little money you have, with all the money we are given from G-d and to be used for good. In fact, even if you are so poor that you are a recipient of tzedaka, you are still obligated to give a portion of the money donated to you for tzedakah to someone else! You don't have to be a millionaire to make a difference in a person's life. Even giving just a little bit to a person in need can make a huge difference.

There are unfortunately many people in unfortunate situations, so the question becomes how do we know how to prioritize our giving. The great Torah sage the Rambam wrote out for us a list of the best ways to give. The top of the list is the most ideal way to give tzedakah, and the last the least preferred way - but no matter where you fall on the list you are still fulfilling the mitzvah.
  1. Give the person a job, interest free loan that can be used to start a new business, or other opportunity so that they can support themselves and not have to ask for money. One of the worst feelings in the world is being dependent on others, so by helping someone to find a job where they can earn their money, you are giving them not only a way out of their dire financial straights, but also dignity.
  2. Donating anonymously through a third party. This can be done by giving to an organization or trust that then redistributes the money to needy people. This gives the donor peace of mind that the recipient has been verified to be actually needy (as opposed to the reluctance many of us have to donate to people on the streets when you are unsure if they money will go to bettering themselves or to feed a drug or alcohol habit). It also grants the recipient a big more dignity to have money given to them by an institution, avoiding the shame that can come from someone with more money than you placing their excess wealth in your hand.
  3. Donating anonymously to a specific person. I know a story of a woman who is a widow with many children. She has a cousin who lives overseas and makes a good living. The cousin wanted to donate to her without embarrassing her, so the cousin arranged it so that a third party would be given an envelope with money and instructed to give it to the widow at a large family event. This way she never knew where it came from.
  4. The donor gives anonymously, but the recipient knows who gave it. An example of this is that our Sages used to throw money behind their backs so that they wouldn't see who was needy enough to pick it up. This also keeps the donor from being too haughty from seeing the reaction of gratitude on the face of the recipient. It's important to keep in mind throughout all of this that we are but conduits of G-d giving away His money.
  5. Giving to someone you know is in need before they have to ask. Asking for money is a painful thing, so by being sensitive and recognizing the person is in need, you remove some of the sting by offering to give to them without them having to say anything. For example, if you know your friend lost their job and doesn't know how to pay their bills that month, casually tell them you would like to pay their utilities until they get a new job or at least for this month.
  6. A lower level is giving after being asked. This is considered not as lofty because it shows the giver wasn't sensitive enough to recognize the person was in need and act before being asked.
  7. Giving after being asked and less than you could give, but in a pleasant way. For example, you see a man on Friday collecting money for Shabbat. Obviously he needs at least a couple of hundred shekel to feed his family, so your two or three shekel is not going to give him all he needs to stop and go buy food, but when you give with a smile, even the little you are giving is still appreciated and warmly received.
  8. The least ideal level is giving with reluctance after being asked. This can be translated as either giving, but being obviously unhappy about doing so, or giving from a place of pity for the recipient, rather than from a place of knowing you are doing a commandment. In either case both the recipient and the donor don't feel good about the transaction, therefore it is the least ideal.
So now that you know how to give, go out and help someone less fortunate than you!

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