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The Five Pillars of Judaism – Charity


Okay, I’m way overdue with this one. My last post on the five pillars of Judaism, where I promised to follow Amani’s explanations of the Five Pillars of Islam, was posted on the first of April, more than a month ago. And even though I wanted to let Amani post before me, I certainly cannot blame her for my great delay. I’m terribly sorry for that.

Anyway, the last pillar was prayer, in Hebrew Tefillah. The next pillar, the third one, is alms-giving or, in Arabic, Zakât. Amani has already written a wonderful post on Zakât, which I really want to encourage you to check out. In general Amani is a writer, who knows what she is writing about, a great source for those, who want to have an easy introduction into Islamic themes, so please, take a little time and check her posts out.

Back to Judaism. As in Islam we also have a pillar focused on charity or alms-giving. The interesting thing though, is that we use the Hebrew term ‘Tzedaqah,’ a term which is also found in Arabic, namely ‘Sadaqah,’ but where Zakât is obligatory, Sadaqah is voluntary but still recommended.

The interesting thing is that when we look up the term in the TaNaCh, the Jewish Bible, the word always is used as ‘righteousness,’ as something being either correct or corrected. The root, TZaDaQ, implies being right or doing the right thing, showing justice and integrity. That is also the idea in Tzedaqah, being more of a Mitzwah, that is, a commandment, than a volunteering act. When one gives Tzedaqah, he does what is correct of him, what is expected of him. As said, the term tzedaqah, and its other form, Tzedeq, appear in the Bible in context of doing the right thing. For example we see in WaYiqra (Leviticus) 19:36 that the word tzedeq is used four times, about applying just or correct weights, balances, ephah, and hin (measures used in business transactions). But the Bible itself doesn’t coin the term to charity.

Only later, during the rabbinic times, did the idea of Tzedaqah become connected with charity, mostly with the Biblical commandment of not reaping the corners of the fields, in order that some may be left for the poor, as it is stated in WaYiqra (Leviticus) 19:9. In context of that verse we see a discussion in the Mishnah, tractate Peah 5:6, it being said that “one who prevents the poor to gather, or allows one but not another, or helps one of them, is deemed to be a robber of the poor.” The same was reflected in a discussion between R. Papa and R. Idi ben Abin, Z”L, about the same matter, where the latter reacted to the former’s reciting of things belonging to the Levites. What is reflected in these examples, is that giving the poor what is due for them is Tzedaqah, righteousness, and in that way Tzedaqah came to reflect charity, a charity that the poor actually have the right for, more than it is a deed of goodwill from the giver.

In later times other rabbis expanded on the rules, evolving an ethical system, which both should relieve the poor receiving the Tzedaqah for embarrassment, as well as securing that the giver gave out of love for Heaven. This we can see, among other examples in RaMBaM’s (Maimonides), Z”L, Mishneh Torah, his Halachich work, in the Hilchot Matanot ‘Aniyim, where he lists eight principles in the giving of Tzedaqah:

The first way of helping is by giving either a loan, making the needy a business partner, give him a job or help him find a job, all leading to the case that the needy no more will have to rely on others. This is the most praiseworthy form of Tzedaqah, since the needy will retain pride and be dependent on himself, and maybe even ending in a situation where he himself can help others.

The second way of helping is to give the money to a middleman, who is knowledgeable enough to know what to do with the money, helping others without the giver knowing who. This will make sure that neither the giver, nor the receiver, is aware that they were part of the action, should they meet each other. The receiver will be spared the humility to the giver, and the giver won’t risk feeling inclined to be arrogant towards the receiver. They will meet on equal terms.

The third way is to tell a middleman to give the Tzedaqah to a specific person. The person himself still doesn’t know who did it, but the giver does know who received.

The fourth way is to give to an unknown person publicly and directly. Though they don’t know each other, they both know who gave and received, and the receiver won’t be spared the feeling of humility.

The fifth way is to give before being asked. Though that will spare the needy the humility having to ask, it will still reveal an attitude with the giver, seeing the receiver as being below himself.

The sixth way is to give after being asked, and give what is needed.

The seventh way is to give with an open attitude, but not give enough.

The eighth way is to give with a sad attitude, not being happy about giving. The most likely way of understanding this, according to what is explained, is that one gives because the receiver is in need and in a bad state, not because one rejoice in fulfilling a positive commandment, imitating the three Patriarchs, Avraham Avinu, Yitzhaq Avinu, and Ya’aqov Avinu, A”S, who gave gladly and always had their homes open for visitors.

Today the most normal thing is to either give through an organization or to put money in a so-called Tzedaqah-box. These boxes can be found, if not in any Jewish shop, then at least by far the most Jewish shops. Some places they are even put various places, such as by bus-stops, so nobody at all will know who the giver is, so far he or she chooses to wait until the stops are abandoned.

Giving Tzedaqah is certainly considered a great Mitzwah, and it is encouraged to give Tzedaqah, when one has to atone for one’s sins, before praying for forgiveness. And it is not only through money, but comes in many ways, giving clothes or food. In fact, during Pessah one should open one’s house to poor people, and make sure to give them plenty of food, as well as one should give two abundant meals the day before Purim. Before oneself takes joy of the joyous seasons, one should make sure that the poor of the land also can find joy.


  1. Amani says:

    Thank you friend! Love your posts also. Very insightful and full of great information! Things I never even knew about. I also have Jewish relatives, dont know if you knew that 😉 Maiden name is Cohen 🙂

  2. qolyehudi says:

    Glad you like them:o) My goal is to teach and be taught:o), that’s why I love to read your posts, among others as well.

    Yeah, we Jews are just everywhere:oP.

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