Parashat Behar 5784 – Tzedaka and Charity: Are They the Same?

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

It says in Parsha Behar that the land shall have a Sabbath every 7th year. It shall be a complete year of rest for the land. The 50th year shall be sacred, and it shall be a jubilee year. God also says: “The land must not be sold in perpetuity for the land is mine.” Tucked away in the parshah, almost as an aside in the course of explaining the laws of the year of release in which debts are canceled, is one of Judaism’s most important institutions, the principle of tzedakah.

Jews are certainly familiar with the idea of giving tzedakah. As Jews, giving money to charity is a fundamental value that we are encouraged to practice from a young age. Many Jewish homes have a tzedakah box for collecting coins for the poor. Some traditional Jews give at least ten percent of their income to charity. Giving to charity is an almost instinctive Jewish response to express thanks to G-d, to ask forgiveness from G-d, or to request a favor from G-d. 

 A 2010 study at the University of Indiana found that Jewish philanthropy in the United States exceeds that of any other group. In January 2023, the Times of Israel reported that half of America’s most generous philanthropists are Jewish.

Although giving tzedakah and giving charity might seem similar on the surface, the two have different origins and meanings. In Jewish tradition, tzedakah is an obligation, whereas charity is typically seen as a voluntary act. The roots of the two terms illustrate the distinction. Charity comes from the Latin word which means love or dearness, suggesting that charitable acts are motivated by love. In contrast, tzedakah is connected with the word tzedec, meaning righteousness or justice. More than just generosity, it carries connotations of an ethical obligation.

Additionally, although we often associate tzedakah with giving money, tzedakah isn’t limited to monetary gifts. It can also include offerings of food, clothing, time, or expertise.

Tzedakah is a constituent of Jewish community life, the moral bond between Jew and Jew (though it should be noted that Jewish law also obligates Jews to give tzedakah to non-Jews). It is foundational to the concept of a covenantal society which is an ethical enterprise constructed on the basis of mutual responsibility.

What are the other differences between Tzedakah and charity? As mentioned, charities are voluntary contributions while tzedakah is a religious duty. Some sages have said that tzedakah is the highest of all commandments, equal to all of them combined, and that a person who does not perform tzedakah is equivalent to an idol worshipper. This is probably hyperbole, but it illustrates the importance of tzedakah in Jewish thought. Tzedakah is one of the three acts that gain us forgiveness from our sins. The High Holiday liturgy repeatedly states that G-d has inscribed a judgment against all who have sinned, but teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah can alleviate the decree. The Jewish law describes the act of giving tzedakah as a mitzvah, a religious duty to perform a good deed. Tzedakah is all about doing what is right. Unlike regular charity, which is free of any rules, there are a few tzedakah guidelines that need to be adhered to. These guidelines help bring structure and make this practice even more effective in curbing poverty. By announcing it as a way of serving justice, it also ensures the donor remains humble and not boastful.

Charity, simply put, is giving to others simply because they asked. A person with a charitable nature is one who freely gives of his own money or belongings to others, regardless of how much the other person deserves what he is getting. There is no ulterior motive other than to help out another person who is in need. If someone gives for some kind of personal gain, it is hard to call that person charitable. Tzedakah is all that, with one exception. With tzedakah, the giving has little to do with what a person feels about being charitable and everything to do with being righteous. You give to others in need because it is the moral thing to do, because it is what God wants you to do, as expressed in Jewish law.

Maimonides describes eight different levels of Tzedakah. The lowest level is when one gives unwillingly. The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand so that he will not need to be dependent upon others.

This is why the greatest act of charity is not simply giving money to a stranger. It is to help someone get on their feet, to do whatever you can, in whatever small or large way, to point them in the direction of self-sufficiency. You’re not simply giving them a job, but self-dignity, the most important human asset.

Dignity is crucial, as is a certain amount of personal independence, and nothing provides both better than being a responsible person.

Jewish tradition generally hold that everyone has an obligation to give tzedakah, including those who are themselves in need. Why would a poor person be obligated to give tzedakah? According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, it is because giving imparts dignity to the giver. “Tzedakah is not only directed to people’s physical needs, but also their psychological situation,” he wrote. “The paradox of giving is that when we give to another, it is we ourselves who are lifted.” While physical needs can be met by others or the community, psychological needs are just as crucial. Therefore, those dependent on tzedakah should still give to others, ensuring no one is stripped of the dignity that comes from giving.

However, what is the halacha for giving Tzedakah if the person in need is lazy? What if the person collecting Tzedakah is someone who could be working to make his own living but has chosen to live off the consciences and free handouts of generous others. Halacha says it is forbidden to give anything to such a poor person. This is because, whereas charity is a means to financially help the poor, either with money or something else of value,  Tzedakah a way to give a person what he really needs, and what he would really want if he knew better.

If a person is pursuing a life of charity because he refuses to take responsibility for his life, then the godly thing to do would be not to give him a handout, in order to force him to take responsibility for his life. Of course, this is hard to know about strangers, especially when they show up at your door for the first time or approach you while you are in your car at a stoplight. There is no question that today there are lots of frauds, making it very difficult for real people, but it is very hard to tell those who truly need tzedakah from those who do not.

The Israelites were charged with creating a society in which everyone has a basic right to a dignified life and equal worth as citizens in the covenantal community under the sovereignty of God.  To repeat,Tzedakah concerns not just physical needs but psychological ones also. Poverty humiliates, and a good society will not allow humiliation. Protecting dignity and avoiding humiliation was a systematic element of rabbinical law.

By recognizing that our wealth and property are part of something greater, we are reminded to cherish and not take them for granted. Such an understanding reinforces the principle that we should not let money dominate our lives but be continually grateful for what we have. Giving tzedakah doesn’t merely support others; it cultivates gratitude and humility within us.