Charity is traditionally thought of as relating solely to helping fellow man, to relieving the burden of neighbors in trouble. But it is not so: charity is considered by the rabbis to be more than aid and assistance. It is, in every sense, a religious act, a way of relating to God, by whose "charity" we survive. Giving charity fulfills one of God's commandments. Giving is not an extraordinary event, but a common one expected of every Jew.
There was no truly Jewish home without its charity box, the pushka. The pushka became a depository not only of moneys, large and small, but of the family's prayers that ride on every coin as it is dropped in – before the Sabbath, after hearing good news, during important events – for the sake of family peace, for an aunt's recovery, Israel's safety, Ethiopian Jews, even good grades and good business.
The Yom Kippur prayerbook lists charity as having the power to overcome a death sentence.
The Yom Kippur prayerbook positions charity alongside repentance and prayer in a vigorous declaration – the combined power of these three acts can overcome evil edicts; it can "save" us from a meaningless death; it can bring the redemption.
And redemption indeed it brought. If kindness is one of the marks of the Jew, charity – although less difficult to execute – is globally and historically reputed to be the chief characteristic of Jewish communities.
In the 20th century alone, the Jewish people have literally redeemed millions of homeless and persecuted brothers and sisters. In this regard, they are indeed the paragons of giving in the modern world.
Support for the disadvantaged in Judaism is not altruism. It is "justice." The Latin term for charity, caritas, implies an act of giving by the "haves" to the "have-nots" – out of the goodness of their hearts. The "have-not's" may not be strictly deserving of the support because they didn't earn it, but the "haves" want to be merciful and so they share their wealth.
Contrariwise, in Judaism, the term for charity is tzedakah, which derives from tzedek, which means "justice."
God gave limited resources to people. Some garner a greater share, some a lesser share. But since all are created equally in the image of God, there is a duty that devolves upon the "haves" to give of their substance to the "have-nots" in order to effect justice and to enable the have-nots to survive, as they themselves do.
The laws of charity – as listed in the Torah – are described in agricultural terms:
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I, the Lord, am your God. (Leviticus 23:22)
When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow... (Deut. 24:19-22)
Every third year, you shall bring out a full tithe of your yield of that year, but leave it within your settlements. Then... the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill... (Deut. 14:28-29).
Explains Maimonides that in the cases described above, the owners of the fields exercise no control over which poor receive the leftover produce, the product of their beneficence! Generally one designates the recipient of one's charity: "A poor man who is a relative, comes before all others," etc. But here the owners have absolutely no rights of selection. The poor come into the field and take their due from the owners – by right!
The poor come into the field and take their due from the owners – by right!
Although we do not live in an agricultural society, these laws translate into our economy. The knowledge that Jews are obligated to give these kinds of funds and to operate under such a definition of charity might deter some converts, Rashi explains, so it is necessary to inform them of this in advance. Such is the obligation and such the glory of the Jewish religion.
That Jews are known for their charitable ways is no aberration of history. Giving is indigenous to this people and it echoes through the long corridors of Jewish history, from the brittle voices of ancient ancestors to the tzedakah songs of kindergartners in today's Hebrew day schools.