Tikkun Olam B’Yachad: Charity vs Tzedakah

Today at sundown starts the Jewish holiday of Purim, when we celebrate the story of Esther and how she saved the Jews from an attempt at annihilation in ancient Persia. The most well-known aspects of Purim are the revelry, complete with special cookies, noisemakers, and silly costumes. But near the end of this story, we are also directed to give mishloach manot (gifts of food to friends) and matanot la’evyonim (gifts of money to the poor). These customs are meant to bring joy and unity to the Jewish people.

While Rebuilding Together East Bay-North (RTEBN) is not a religious organization, as a Jew I felt drawn to it because of the values imparted to me by my religion. RTEBN as an organization shares a lot of the values and practices that are promoted in Judaism. One example is the emphasis on community, which is particularly relevant on Purim, along with the core practice of giving resources to those in need. While matanot la’evyonim is supposed to be a separate gift above and beyond one’s regular gift of tzedakah (pronounced tsuh-dah-kah), since they are both related to giving to those in need, I wanted to take the opportunity to write about the differences between the Jewish practice of tzedakah and the mainstream notion of charity. 

The Hebrew word “tzedakah” is often translated into English as “charity”, but based on its root, tzadi-dalet-kuf (צדק), its meaning is closer to “justice” or “righteousness”. Charity and tzedakah may seem similar at face value – they both involve giving to people in need – but they are rooted in very different ethical systems. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the modern word “charity” as we use it today comes from translations of the New Testament, originally meaning Christian love. Charity is about feelings of kindness, affection, and benevolence. When we think of charity, we think of “the rich” voluntarily giving their money or resources to “the poor” out of a spontaneous sense of generosity. This kind of charity is motivated by the giver’s desire to feel good – to affirm to themselves and possibly others that they are a good and moral person. 

While generosity for the sake of warm-and-fuzzies certainly has merit, this framework is not without its flaws. To start, it reinforces a social hierarchy, putting wealthy people above those in need. “The rich” and “the poor” are static categories, where “the rich” have power, influence, and moral superiority, while “the poor” are stigmatized as pitiful, helpless, and unable to contribute to society – and therefore less important as people. The relationship between the giver and recipient is unequal and even transactional. In exchange for their charity, the giver expects or even demands to be compensated with gratitude, and the recipient is treated as a vehicle for the giver to feel good about themself. Furthermore, spontaneous acts of charity can foster a false sense of complacency in the givers. They may feel like they have “done their part” to help society and nothing else is needed from them. However, there will always be more people in need; individual gifts don’t address systemic issues, and people need to remain passionate and engaged to continue the fight against inequality.

In contrast to charity, tzedakah is not about kindness or benevolence, or any individual’s feelings; as stated earlier, it is about justice. Tzedakah is a requirement in Judaism – not simply a good idea that people are encouraged to do out of love, but mandated by Jewish law. Just as regulations are laid out regarding what food is acceptable to eat and what activities are forbidden on Shabbat, there are specific rules about the minimum required donation and the time frame in which it must be donated. Even someone who is reliant on receiving tzedakah themself is explicitly obligated to give. Tzedakah is not just the rich giving money to the poor, but a community coming together in mutual support, where every member is seen as an equal and contributes regardless of means. 

Tzedakah is about building and sustaining an interconnected community where everyone has their needs met. When some people have more than enough while others are in need, it’s seen as a spiritual imbalance, which we are obligated to correct. We do not give merely to feel good, we give because it is the right and just thing to do. This guiding principle keeps us from expecting anything, even gratitude, in return for our donations, and discourages us from forming a social hierarchy based on inequality. Instead, we are inspired to work toward a more equitable society for all.

RTEBN operates much more in line with the philosophy of tzedakah than the common notion of charity. We don’t simply repair houses so we can pat ourselves on the back and feel morally superior. We work toward housing dignity because everyone deserves to have their needs met, and we have the resources to meet them. And by meeting those needs, we ensure that our neighbors can participate fully in society and make their own valuable contributions. We are an interconnected community of volunteers, homeowners, organizations, and many more; the members of our community span across ages, races, and genders. We all support and learn from one another on our shared mission toward justice. We know that whether we’re building a community or rebuilding a home, we’re better off [re]building together.

Works Referenced: 

“Charity, n.” In OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed February 18, 2021. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/30731.

“Esther – Chapter 9.” Accessed February 25, 2021. https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16482/jewish/Chapter-9.htm.

“Judaism 101: Tzedakah: Charity.” Accessed February 18, 2021. https://www.jewfaq.org/tzedakah.htm.

“Matnot Aniyim – Chapter 7.” Accessed February 18, 2021. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/986708/jewish/Matnot-Aniyim-Chapter-7.htm.

Sacks, Jonathan. Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible. Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2016. Print.

Simmons, Rabbi Shraga. “Gifts to Friends and the Poor.” aishcom, February 2, 2003. https://www.aish.com/h/purim/m/48969611.html.

“Tzedakah vs Charity: The Key Differences : News.” Accessed February 18, 2021. https://www.regionalbikurcholim.org/news/tzedakah-vs-charity

My Jewish Learning. “Tzedek vs. Tzedakah: Justice vs. Charity.” Accessed February 18, 2021. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tzedek-vs-tzedakah-justice-vs-charity/.

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