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Tzedaka vs. Charity

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

"She extends her hands to the poor." Proverbs 31:20

When it comes to dealing with the poor, we get it wrong so often.

Even the wording we use is misleading.

We use words like, "giving," "charity" and "philanthropy."

They imply that relating to the needs of others involves generosity or caring, and is somewhat optional.

Charity comes from "caritas" which has to do with the heart (cardio) and from which we get the word caring.

Philanthropy means a love of people.

Even the words, “giving” and “donation” imply that we own the things we are giving away.

Tzedakah is really none of those.

Tzedakah is the Hebrew word we inherited for relating to the needs of others. Though it is translated as “charity” that distracts from the main point. It is better understood as citizen's obligation, responsibility or righteousness. Its shades of meaning don't revolve around feelings, they overlap with justice. We don't do tzedakah because we are so moved or because it feels good. Those are nice side effects that are often present. We do tzedakah because we must.

Surprisingly, the goal of tzedakah is not only to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, break cruel chains and generally improve the lives of others.

An almost equally important goal is that we not become shriveled up and callous to the needs of the world.

“It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua:

The poor person [standing at the door] does more for the householder than the householder does for the poor person.” Leviticus Rabba 34:8; Ruth Rabba 5:9 [ancient Jewish sacred texts]

This is what my mind has been focused on these past several months.

I hope that yours will be similarly engaged.


Rabbi Jeff Glickman

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