The Tzedakah Box: A religious obligation and tradition

sduncan post on January 30th, 2013
Posted in Diaspora communities Tags: ,

By Sue Kelley

Traditional Jewish homes commonly have a home charity box, a tzedakah, for collecting coins to give to the poor. Tzedakah is a Hebrew word commonly translated as charity – giving aid, assistance, and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes – but, the nature of tzedakah is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, or giving the poor their due.

While Western style philanthropy is rooted in Christian traditions and is seen as an individual right, the tzedakah is a religious obligation of the Jewish faith and is to be performed regardless of financial standing.

“The giving of charity is and always has been an integral part of the religious life of Orthodox Jews. To give of one’s wealth to another Jew in need is an imperative, commanded both by the laws and by the traditions of Jewry, and no man may consider his religious obligations completely fulfilled without having engaged in charity-giving.” Samuel Heilman

Jewish tradition is to give at least ten percent of their income to charity. Giving to charity is a tradition so entrenched in Jewish life that is almost instinctive way to express thanks to God, to ask forgiveness from God, or to request favour from God. The Torah says, “By giving tzedakah, a person’s mind and hearts become refined one thousand times.”

The traditions of tzedakah are so long standing that lists were made to summarize the hierarchy of reasons to give. Ancient groups like the Talmud sorted these different levels into an organized list. Here is that list, sorted from the least noble to the most praiseworthy:

Giving begrudgingly
Giving less than 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 does not know your identity
Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
Philanthropic behaviour is learned by doing and understanding family life traditions and customs.4 Train a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22.6). By using the tzedakah in the Jewish home it gives parents the opportunity to teach children lifelong philanthropy from an early age. With care and guidance, the benefits of these small acts of kindness, by giving through the tzedakah, will manifest themselves into positive traits as children grow into adulthood. 3 In fact, there are many tzedakah boxes that are created with fun, childlike designs to help children display their own personality, and indeed help them build ownership and responsibility in their giving.

Says a Jewish friend of ours, “Our family uses this as a way to support local schools, synagogues, and organizations that are important to us and to give to the poor, especially if they are family. Using a tzedakah is a way to engage in a “mitzvah” – a Jewish tradition which translates into performing a good deed that is good for your soul and well-being.”

This Jewish tradition has been around for thousands of years and is still a strong tradition within Jewish families today living in the Western world. A philanthropic program being used successfully in the U.K. and recently adopted in Canada by many fundraisers is the Home Charity Box, where a branded donation box is placed in the donors/prospects home to collect loose change. The money collected is sent in to the charity on a frequent basis. This is a great example of an ancient giving tradition being carried over into the Western world.

Works Cited

Samuel Heilman, The Gift of Alms, 1975, p371

Kids 4 Tzedakah, Australia, online at

From Generation to Generation: Transmitting the Jewish philanthropic tradition. Anita H. Plotinsky

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