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Why We Give. What is Tzedakah?

Although we translate tzedakah as charity, the concept is broader, and deeper in meaning.

Tzedakah

Tzedakah is fundamental to Judaism; it is at the very heart of who we are as Jews. Tzedakah is not a choice. It is one of the 613 mitzvot, or obligations, we live by. Many of our sages considered it the most important commandment.

The root of the Hebrew word is tzedek—justice, or righteousness. In the Bible, tzedakah means “righteous behavior.” We do not give to charity out of kindness alone. We perform acts of tzedakah as we seek to create a just world.

The commandment of tzedakah is so important that the recipient of our charity is considered to be granting us a favor by allowing us to fulfill our obligation. The poor must also give what they can, so that they, too, are able to perform mitzvot.

Acts of tzedakah are equal in weight to all the commandments. (Talmud)

Eight levels of tzedakah

How we give is as important as what we give. 900 years ago, the great Rabbi Maimonides identified eight levels of tzedakah:

  • Giving begrudgingly
  • Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully
  • Giving after being asked
  • Giving before being asked
  • Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  • Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
  • Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
  • Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant