Email Email   


In Hebrew, tsedakah, meaning righteousness or justice, since helping the needy is considered a duty. In biblical times, when the Jews were agriculturists, they gave charity by letting the poor glean, that is, gather the grain dropped in harvesting (see Ruth 2: 2-16). According to biblical law the corners of the field were to be left unreaped for the poor, who also had the right to all sheaves found uncollected. A tithe, or tenth, of all farm produce was offered to charity; untithed food could not be eaten. Biblical law required that the tithe be distributed to the needy, particularly “to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.”

By Talmudic times each community had a kuppah, or charity fund. The community had absolute power to levy taxes for this purpose. From the kuppah the community’s poor were given money for fourteen meals per week. Distinguished members of the community were collectors for the kuppah, and a board of three men was responsible for allocating the funds. Some rabbis divided charity into seven categories: feeding the hungry; clothing the naked; visiting the sick; burying the dead and comforting mourners; ransoming captives; educating orphans and housing the homeless; and providing dowries for poor brides.

The lending of money without interest, helping the non-Jewish poor in the community, and giving preference to women and students were all part of the system of Jewish charity. Maimonides listed eight degrees of charity: the lowest was to give grudgingly; the highest to help a person to become self-supporting.

Charity was also an important act leading to the pardoning of personal transgressions or sins. The Yom Kippur service states that “repentance and prayer and charity avert the harshness of God’s decree.” The Jew believes that to ask God to have pity upon one’s own misfortune, one must have pity for others’ misfortune. Charity is therefore distributed on the eve of Yom Kippur in atonement for one’s sins. Because charity is considered effective in redeeming the souls of the dead as well as of the living, alms are also generously distributed at funerals.

Gifts to the poor are not merely associated with mournful occasions and fear of punishment. Rather, they are a basic principle of Judaism and are offered on joyous occasions as well. Thus, the merry Purim festivities include the custom of mishloah manot, or the delivery of gifts to the poor, and it is customary to raise maot hittim, or wheat money, before Passover. This money is used to provide matzo, wine, and the other ritual needs of the holiday for those who cannot afford them. Similarly, the Passover Seder ceremony includes an invitation to “all the poor to come and eat.” In Eastern Europe it was common for the poor to be invited to all ritual celebrations.

In the U.S. today and throughout the Jewish world, charity continues to be one of the main aspects of organized Jewish life.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email