The Tzedakah Spirit

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And, the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference once dies before one actually dies.”

Elie Wiesel

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13 NRSV

The distinction of Tzedakah (צְדָקָה)

There is a different kind of giving that emerges from the bible. Târumah can be considered tzedakah, especially when it is in the context of taking care of your leaders — people whose duty does not allow them to make a profit for themselves.

The word tzedakah (tsuh-DOCK-ah) is a Hebrew term that literally means “righteousness”. In the Jewish culture, tzedakah pertains to charitable giving or philanthropy. In Judaism, the weight of this word goes beyond charity. It refers to doing good to ensure that the needs of others are met.

In the context of the târumah, the giver does not only give to fulfill traditions or duties. Instead, there is a spirit that has compassion for the well-being of the priests, as servants of God. They are doing their part to serve their spiritual leaders. The tzedakah offering does not only include the târumah, but it refers to what we now know as a benevolence fund.

Tzedakah is a foundational spiritual practice. Tzedakah was a central obligation of Jewish life, whether the person is rich or poor.

The practice of giving is not according to a person’s economic station or spiritual accomplishments. In the Jewish culture, life begins and ends in tzedakah, and so it must not be an issue or a struggle. When a child is born, the Jewish father pledges a certain amount of money for the distribution of the poor. At the funeral, the mourners contribute coins to the beggars who swarm the burial area.

The tzedakah is practiced in order to remind the individual that at every turn of one’s life, giving is present. Every celebration or holiday is usually accompanied by gifts. In Jewish culture, generosity is a way of life. During holidays, they would pass around a box wherein coins are dropped for the support of different charities.

The well-off home has a series of boxes for different purposes. If something good or bad happens to the family, a coin is dropped in the box. The children are also trained in the habit of giving.

The father would encourage this habit by having his son give the alms to the beggar, instead of handing them over directly. Jewish people grow up with the gesture of giving becoming almost a reflex. How blessed is a person whose habit is to give, instead of to take?

Jewish people grow up with the gesture of giving becoming almost a reflex.

If we study the proper context of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev.19:18), it is not a command to feel as loving toward another as you do toward yourself, but to love your neighbor as part of yourself. Love is an action. It is about taking care of others, as you do yourself. Thus, giving tzedakah leads to the realization that there is no self or other —  giving to the needy is like taking money from your right hand and placing it into your left.

Tzedakah is a practice in which anyone can engage. Unlike the word “charity,” which has its origins in the Latin Caritas, “heart,” tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word tzedek, which means “justice.”

Charity is done by someone whose heart is awakened (Ruach), something not everyone has experienced.

Tzedakah, on the other hand, challenges you to be just. Even the person who has a scarcity-fearing egoic consciousness (Neshamah) can support this principle, since creating a system of just earning and use of finances protects you as well as others.
According to Moses Maimonides, a great medieval philosopher, there are eight degrees of tzedakah (with number 1 being the ultimate and number 8 being the most basic) still followed today:
  1. Seeing to a person’s independence by providing a person with a job, entering into a partnership that allows the person to establish a business, giving an interest-free loan, giving a grant.
  2. Giving tzedakah anonymously through a reputable third party and without knowing who will receive the aid.
  3. Displaying anonymously to a known recipient.
  4. Showing publically to an unknown recipient.
  5. Offering without being asked.
  6. Allowing generously after being asked.
  7. Awarding gladly but not generously.
  8. Giving grudgingly.

The highest form of charity is when you prevent others from ever becoming poor, such as by offering a loan or employment or investing in someone’s business.

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