Hardwired To Give
“Charity is equal in importance to all
of the other commandments combined.”
(The central text of Jewish religious law.)
Jewish gravestone in the Jewish cemetery in Otwock, Poland
Growing up as a young girl in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, I recall tzedakah (charity) to be as innate as eating three meals a day. The kitchen table served as the heart of our home. There, at its center, sat my grandmother’s blue and white tin pushke – a Yiddish word (derived from the Polish word puszka) meaning a small container kept in the home – usually the kitchen – where coins were routinely deposited to be donated to charity.
It was customary in our family to give – even pennies – before blessing and eating each meal. I can still hear the clinking of the coins as they settled in the box.
When the pushke was full, my mother and I dropped it off wherever it would do the most good – usually a family in need or a philanthropic organization.
My memories are special. My story, however, is not unique.
Jewish giving is an enduring tradition, hardwired into the collective Jewish soul for more than three thousand years. A series of biblical laws (halacha) require each Jew to participate in tzedakah – charity in the pursuit of justice or righteousness; tikkun olam – a dictate to repair the world; chesed – mercy towards and compassion for one’s fellow; and mitzvot of ma’aser ani and peah – the obligation to tithe (to give 10% of one’s proceeds or to the extent of one’s capacity) from one’s income and from the yield of one’s fields.
The Talmud (the book of Jewish civil and ceremonial law) also stresses Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh beZeh (Jews are responsible for one another). American Jews however – according to Connected to Give, a joint effort by foundations to measure religious giving trends – have demonstrated exceedingly generous support for non-Jewish causes. This is likely due to Jewish persecution and discrimination throughout history and thus an empathy for those who suffer a similar plight.
The Pew Research Center estimates ٥.٣ million Jews live in the United States, accounting for approximately ٢.٢ percent of the U.S. adult population. Yet, regardless of economic status, they lead in per capita giving more than any other religious or ethnic group.
The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University estimates that Jewish philanthropy gives more than $9 billion each year to charitable causes in the U.S. and around the world.
Rabbi Yisroel Shanowitz, of Chabad of Summerlin, explains that every Jew is endowed with a strong theological foundation for robust giving.
“The Oral Torah and first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions (Mishna) says that the world stands on three pillars: Teshuvah (repentance), Tefillah (prayer), and Tzedakah (acts of kindness),” Rabbi Shanowitz says. The latter pillar is considered to be the most important of all.
Referenced throughout the biblical texts, tzedakah is greater than all the sacrifices (Talmud, Sukkah 49b) and the equivalent of all the other commandments combined (Talmud, Baba Batra 9a). Since creation, the world has stood upon tzedakah (Midrash Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Zutta 1).
The rabbis understood that without acts of charity and kindness, humanity cannot endure. They believed that humankind is not an impartial observer in G-d’s creation but rather a partner in bringing the Divine presence into the world by caring and instilling the virtues of compassion into the hearts of one’s fellow being.
“Many Jews hold by a concept known as the eight degrees of charitable giving,” says Yocheved Mintz, Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Pnai Tikvah in Las Vegas.
It was created by the 12th-century rabbi, physician, and philosopher Maimonides, also known as the Rambam. It’s a metaphorical eight-rung ladder that those who give can climb to get closer to the Divine.
“At the 1st rung, donors give begrudgingly,” Rabbi Mintz explains. “The second rung, they give less than they should but cheerfully; the third, they give after being asked; the fourth, they give before being asked; the fifth, they do not know the recipient of their giving but the recipient knows them; the sixth, the giver knows the recipient but the recipient does not know them; the seventh, no one knows the identity of the other; and at the eight, and most altruistic rung, they give to enable the recipient to become self-sufficient.”
She adds that the eighth rung reflects the adage, ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’.
The Torah is profoundly sensitive to the dynamic between donor and recipient. Rabbi Shanowitz explains that G-d selects those who will be His agents to disburse His bounty and those who will receive it.
“When we are called upon to assist someone in need, we are not giving away something that belongs to us but rather we are doing justice by dispensing monies that G-d entrusted to us to give to the less fortunate,” he says.
Tzedakah is so hardwired into the Jewish psyche that in addition to giving money, one is obligated to provide what a person lacks. Someone without clothing or furniture should be given those items. One who is unmarried should get help to find a mate. One who is accustomed to servants, who becomes impoverished, should receive help to be restored to their original status.
Even so, there is no commandment to give tzedakah daily, though it is customary and warranted to pledge tzedakah on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the deeds of each Jew are judged by G-d and a verdict is rendered as to whom shall be rewarded and whom shall be punished.
The Talmud explains that repentance, prayer, and giving have the power to favorably impact G-d’s judgement and reverse a negative decree. Of these three, giving is primary among them.
Avraham, according to the biblical narrative, was the first Jew. He and his wife Sarah exemplified kindness, generosity, and the giving of hospitality. Their tent welcomed guests from the north, south, east, and west. Avraham originated the DNA for tzedakah embedded in the Jewish culture.
The marital chuppah, also open on four sides, follows in that same tradition. The foundation of the family is meant to be one of kindness, caring, and generosity – toward one another and one’s fellow being.
The small blue and white tin box of my childhood stands as a reminder of the DNA I carry, a reminder to make the world a better place by my call to action and by passing that tradition on to my children as my mother passed it on to me. L’dor V’dor (generation to generation) – from Avraham to me to my children and their children’s children.
Preserving and practicing the biblical mandate of giving is perhaps the secret to the survival of the Jewish people and a world desperately in need of kindness.