Tzedakah is a fundamental part of the Jewish way of life. While the word “tzedakah” is generally translated into English as “charity”, the word actually comes from the Hebrew word meaning “righteousness” or “justice”.
The difference is that charity is typically given when one is financially able and is emotionally moved to do so. Tzedakah is an obligation given by God to all Jews regardless of financial standing or willingness to give.
The Talmud describes eight levels of giving, from least meritorious to the most meritorious:
- Giving begrudgingly
- Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
- Giving after being asked
- Giving before being asked
- Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
- Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
- Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
- Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
The obligation to perform tzedakah can be fulfilled by giving money to the poor, to health care institutions, to synagogues or to educational institutions. It can also be fulfilled by supporting your children beyond the age when you are legally required to, or supporting your parents in their old age. The obligation includes giving to both Jews and gentiles; contrary to popular belief, Jews do not just “take care of our own.”
At TBS we begin teaching this concept at a very early age. Each religious school class begins their lesson with tzedakah donations, and each class is allowed to decide how they want to give the money they have collected over the school year.