Get to Know the True Meaning of Tzedakah

Learn about the Jewish practice of tzedakah in this article.

Tzedakah is an important obligation in the Jewish religion and is a word that can also be used to represent charity. The concept of tzedakah does, however, go beyond goodwill and charity as understood in modern Western culture.

In this article, you can learn all about the origins and practice of tzedakah:

  • * Word meaning and Biblical mentions
  • * The eight levels of giving
  • * Tzedakah in practice
  • * Other interesting facts about tzedakah

Word Meaning and Biblical Mentions

In Hebrew, tzedakah means justice, fairness, or righteousness. Tzedakah is considered an ethical option in the Jewish faith for everyone to do what is right and just as part of living a spiritual life. Unlike philanthropy, which represents acts of goodwill done voluntarily, tzedakah is someone Jews must do, regardless of their finances and income level. The word tzedakah is found 157 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. In most of these, its righteousness meaning is used.

The Eight Levels of Giving

In Biblical times, post-Biblical times, and modern-day Judaism, many forms of giving and charity are recognized. Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides as he is commonly called, was a Sephardic Jewish philosopher and a very influential Torah scholar during the Middle Ages. He came up with a hierarchy of giving known as the Eight Levels of Giving. These are in the Mishneh Torah, in a chapter providing the applicable laws for giving to poor people.

According to tradition, the highest level of giving an interest-free loan to someone to allow them to take care of themselves and cease to rely on others. Other forms of this first level of charity are getting into a business partnership with the person in need, finding someone a job, or providing them with a grant or employment opportunity.

The second highest form of giving is giving anonymously to an unknown recipient. Doing this can involve donating to a trustworthy person or fund that can proceed to use your money to carry out acts of tzedakah. There are many charitable organizations that donors can send donations in cash or kind.

The third level of tzedakah also involves giving anonymously, but in this case, it is to someone you know. The fourth level of tzedakah is giving publicly to an unknown recipient. In the next and fifth level, you can give tzedakah before someone asks you to, and the sixth is giving adequately to the needs of someone who has asked you. If you give willingly to someone who has asked, but what you give is not enough to meet their need, then it is considered the seventh level of giving.

The eight and lowest level of giving is when you give unwillingly. Other variations and translations of this level call it giving in sadness or out of pity. Many believe that Maimonides considered this type of generosity one that comes from feeling sad and sorry for those in need and not because giving is a religious requirement.

Tzedakah in Practice

The way people carry out tzedakah depends mainly on what needs they see around them, what they have at their disposal, and what level of giving they decide. What is for sure is that all Jews must carry out tzedakah whether or not they are rich or poor.

For most Jews, carrying out the religious duty of tzedakah is done by donating some of their income to a charity organization. Many also choose to give to needy people they know or meet. For more traditional followers of Judaism, the practice of giving a tenth or tithe of their income is practiced. This practice is known as ma’sar kesafim in Hebrew.

Besides the day to day or regular acts of tzedakah already mentioned, people also do special acts if charity on important days. These include weddings, Jewish holidays such as Passover, and Purim. It is a common tradition for a new Jewish couple to give to charity at their wedding. In doing this, they honor the sacred union they are entering into. At Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays and feasts, many people open up their homes and invite strangers to the dinner table. At Purim, every Jew is obliged to give on person food and at least two poor people gifts to spread happiness during the month.

In past times, when tzedakah was practiced in a Biblical context and agricultural economy, giving was related to crops and harvests. The practice of leaving gleanings from crops for the poor to collect after harvest was a common form of charity.

There are some guidelines provided on how to give tzedakah money. Some due diligence and verification must be done to make sure that the person or organization that one donates to is reputable and is going to use the money efficiently and wisely. Stewarding of tzedakah money is a fundamental law because this money ultimately belongs to God. A commonly quoted scripture says that people must not steal from the poor because they are poor.

Other Interesting Facts about Tzedakah

There are also facts about the Jewish practice and tradition of tzedakah that are worth mentioning. One is the Pushke or charity box, which you might see in many Jewish homes. This tradition has been around for a long time, but people have reintroduced it in recent centuries. The charity box idea originated from a chamber in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem where people could leave money for the poor. Those who fell upon hard times could go to the temple and receive provisions from time to time.

It is also good to note that tzedakah can be given in cash or kind, and in many situations, giving food is considered superior. Besides being a duty for all Jews, there are rewards for carrying out the practice. One of these is safety from danger, another is redemption, and a third benefit is having room to negotiate with God in prayer.

Tzedakah represents the Jewish practice of acting justly and practicing charity. It has been around for ages, and it forms an essential duty in Judaism. There are levels of giving, and everyone is required to do what they can.

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