Students and teachers of Jewish tradition throughout the ages have consistently emphasized the religion’s teachings on the value of tzedakah, the Hebrew term most similar to the English word “charity.” However, most authorities distinguish between the two concepts by pointing out that tzedakah is also connected to the Hebrew word for “righteousness.”
Unlike “charity,” which connotes giving prompted by one’s heart, “tzedakah” refers to the commandment incumbent upon every Jew to help make the world a better place by fulfilling the moral obligation to share with others in need. While “charity” can sometimes result from a momentary emotion, “tzedakah” echoes the verse from Deuteronomy 16:20, which commands, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” A “tzaddik,” in this line of thinking, is a person of great righteousness who commits to contributing to the well-being of others in the community regardless of mood or personal feelings.
The great medieval physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote of eight levels of tzedakah, ranking some as having greater significance than others. In his Mishneh Torah, which many authorities still consider among the greatest and most comprehensive codifications of Jewish law, Maimonides wrote that the highest category of tzedakah involves helping another person to become financially successful and self-sufficient. This can involve finding work for the other person, going into business with him or her, or providing funding through a loan or gift. By doing this, one not only gives the person a job, but he or she also extends the gift of self reliance to any employees the original recipient eventually hires.
Maimonides went on to describe other levels of charity. One of these consists of giving to people in need without either party knowing the identity of the other. This type of anonymous mitzvah, or good deed, offered in secret, removes any personal ego from the situation. Contributions to a general community charity fund come under this heading, and parallel one way in which charity was given through the temple in Jerusalem in ancient days.
Still another socially positive way to distribute tzedakah involves the donor knowing to whom he or she gives while remaining anonymous to the recipient. This was a traditionally recommended method when those charged with distributing communal charitable funds lacked the integrity to administer them properly. In fact, Jewish lore abounds with stories of religious teachers who secretly left money at the homes of poor families in their communities.
Maimonides went on to say that the opposite situation is also a mitzvah: When the recipient of charity knows who his or her benefactor is, but the donor does not know the identity of the recipient, the act of kindness remains praiseworthy. In order to ensure that people in need would not be shamed by having their benefactors know their names, ancient rabbis are said to have often thrown coins behind them into the streets for people to pick up without being seen.
Another level of giving, according to Maimonides, is when a donor gives charity directly to a person in need without being asked or prompted. One level below that is the situation in which an individual gives after receiving a request for aid. A still lower level of giving occurs when a donor gives an amount less than he or she is able to, but presents the gift with a positive attitude. Giving hope and cheerfulness along with monetary gifts elevates the virtuous act even further, and is in itself a deed of kindness. At the bottom of Maimonides’ hierarchy of giving is when a donor gives unwillingly, although because it assists another person, even this level of charity is worthy of note.
In Jewish tradition, both ancient and modern teachers consistently warn against giving to charity thoughtlessly, without examining the practices of the organizations involved. As a good steward of the Torah’s recommended 10 percent of one’s personal funds earmarked for the common good, every person should evaluate potential contributions carefully. Those in a position to benefit others with their wealth need to make judicious decisions about which organizations are the most worthy, which will act as sound trustees of precious resources, and which will make the most impact in the community.
Jewish tradition offers several other recommendations that are in keeping with a highly practical way of looking at charitable giving: Each individual should first look to the welfare of his or her own family and acquaintances, to guard against neglecting those in one’s immediate community. In addition, people should not contribute more than 20 percent of their income, because this might place them in an unstable financial situation.