The Jewish tradition of Philanthropy

sduncan post on February 1st, 2013
Posted in Diaspora communities Tags: ,

By Jack Papoff

The Hebrew word for charity is “Tzedakah”. This is for giving aid, assistance and money to the poor or worthwhile causes. Tzedakah is the responsibility to give a portion of ones earnings for the common good. However, charity suggests benevolence and generosity which is an act of the powerful and wealthy to benefit the poor and needy, while Tzedakah means righteousness, fairness or justice.

Historical Roots – At the end of the Jewish worship services the Aleinu prayer states a goal of the Jewish people to “perfect the world under the sovereignty of god”. The term “perfect the world” in Hebrew is “tikkum olam”, which means to fix or repair the world. In ancient times the torah instructs believers to leave crops standing, so that will allow the poor to get needed food for survival. However, as the economy grew and diversified the rabbis addressed tzedakah in financial terms. Both Public and Private funds were created to help support needy people. Food banks and soup kitchens were developed at a time of no governmental assistance. The root work of tzedakah means “justice” and implies the Rabbis viewed social welfare as an economic and social justice manner. Later the rabbis of medieval times clarified the disparate law of tzedakah.

Rabbi Moses Meimonides developed an eight stage approach, which asked some of the following questions: How much should one give. Should giving be done anonymously. What is the ideal form. For what amount. These obligations and questions involved in giving tzedakah are relevant today, and offer a variety of ways to make contributions.

The Catholic history in the United States shows the tradition of the churches charitable activities and the increasing tension between centralized control of giving and democratic participation. Also in the earliest days Catholics organized to initiate and support charitable activities. It also developed a growing church community with widening church and ethnic differences, developing networks of orphanages, hospitals, schools and social changes that came to represent the Catholic way of giving.

In going back to the Jewish tradition “Tzedakah” is more than giving money to the poor. It requires the donor to share his or her compassion and empathy along with the money. If a person gives tzedakah it should be given cheerfully and joyfully. There are also two aspects one with the hand, and the other with the heart.

The Jewish Federation was started in the beginning of the twentieth century. Individual support of synagogues and welfare agencies grew into a Jewish federated philanthropy of pooled individual contributions, that supported a defined infrastructure. Many synagogues (including the one I belong to) raise funds through donations made by members annual dues plus applicable building fund dues which are tax deductible, plus any other activities the synagogues may have. There is also a tradition in Jewish homes, businesses, etc., where they have a blue and white box called a PUSHKA. This is for depositing small coins for other Jewish people in need. The Pushka box also is used during daily services, so participants can also give small change. The Orthodox Jews believe in giving some Tzedakah on a daily basis.

Works Cited

Jewish Philanthropy The Concept of Tzedakah a paper written by Jacqueline DeGroot in 1998.
The Catholic Tradition in America a paper written by Mary J. Oates 1995

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