What does it mean to give tzedakah?

In Judaism, giving tzedakah (translated as charity, justice, or righteousness) is an obligation on each person, including those who are themselves in need.

Why should a person who depends on tzedakah be obligated to give tzedakah to others? Giving tzedakah not only provides for someone else’s physical needs; it also confers dignity on the person giving.

In other words, giving tzedakah benefits the giver as well as the recipient. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “The paradox of giving is that when we…give to another, it is we ourselves who are lifted. I believe that what elevates us in life is not what we receive but what we give.”

The great importance of tzedakah

In the Mishneh Torah, Matanot Aniyim (Gifts to the Poor) 10:1, Rambam underscores the great importance of the mitzvah of tzedakah:

חַיָּבִין אָנוּ לְהִזָּהֵר בְּמִצְוַת צְדָקָה יוֹתֵר מִכָּל מִצְוֹת עֲשֵׂה. שֶׁהַצְּדָקָה סִימָן לַצַּדִּיק זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית יח יט) “כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו” (בראשית יח יט) “לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה”. וְאֵין כִּסֵּא יִשְׂרָאֵל מִתְכּוֹנֵן וְדַת הָאֱמֶת עוֹמֶדֶת אֶלָּא בִּצְדָקָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה נד יד) “בִּצְדָקָה תִּכּוֹנָנִי”.

We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of tzedakah than any other positive commandment because tzedakah is the sign of the righteous, the seed of Abraham our father, as it is said, “For I know him that he will command his children to do tzedakah.” The throne of Israel and the religion of truth is upheld only through tzedakah, as it is said, “In tzedakah shall you be established” (Isaiah 54:14).

How much should you give?

In the Mishneh Torah, Matanot Aniyim (Gifts to the Poor) 7:5, Rambam states: 

בָּא הֶעָנִי וְשָׁאַל דֵּי מַחֲסוֹרוֹ וְאֵין יַד הַנּוֹתֵן מַשֶּׂגֶת נוֹתֵן לוֹ כְּפִי הַשָּׂגַת יָדוֹ וְכַמָּה עַד חֲמִישִׁית נְכָסָיו מִצְוָה מִן הַמֻּבְחָר. וְאֶחָד מֵעֲשָׂרָה בִּנְכָסָיו בֵּינוֹנִי. פָּחוֹת מִכָּאן עַיִן רָעָה. וּלְעוֹלָם לֹא יִמְנַע עַצְמוֹ מִשְּׁלִישִׁית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשָׁנָה. וְכָל הַנּוֹתֵן פָּחוֹת מִזֶּה לֹא קִיֵּם מִצְוָה.

If a poor person comes and asks for what is sufficient to fill his needs and one does not have the means to provide it for him, one gives according to his means. How much is this? One-fifth of one’s assets is the best possible way, but one-tenth is the usual way. Less than this is a bad sign, and never should one restrain himself from a third of a shekel a year. Anyone who has not given at least this much has not fulfilled the mitzvah.

Even a poor person should give tzedakah

Who is obligated to give tzedakah? Is it just the wealthy or are the poor obligated as well? In the Mishneh Torah, Matanot Aniyim (Gifts to the Poor) 7:5, Rambam states:

וַאֲפִלּוּ עָנִי הַמִּתְפַּרְנֵס מִן הַצְּדָקָה חַיָּב לִתֵּן צְדָקָה לְאַחֵר:

Even a poor person who lives on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.

The Talmud (Gittin 7b) states the same idea:

אמר מר זוטרא אפי’ עני המתפרנס מן הצדקה יעשה צדקה

Mar Zutra says: Even a poor person who is sustained from charity must also perform charity.

Giving helps the giver too

Why should one who is dependent on tzedakah also give tzedakah to others? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offered this explanation:

“On the face of it, this makes no sense at all. Why should a person who depends on charity be obligated to give charity? The principle of tzedakah is surely that one who has more than they need should give to one who has less than they need…

The truth is, however, that tzedakah is not only directed to people’s physical needs but also their psychological situation…Someone who is dependent on tzedakah has physical needs, and these must be met by other people or by the community as a whole. But they also have psychological needs. That is why Jewish law rules that they must give to others. Giving confers dignity, and no one should be deprived of it.”

How you give matters

The Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 249:3) underscores that it’s not just what you give, but how you give that matters:

צריך ליתן הצדקה בסבר פנים יפות בשמחה ובטוב לבב ומתאונן עם העני בצערו ומדבר לו דברי תנחומין ואם נתנה בפנים זועפות ורעות הפסיד זכותו:

One must give tzedakah with a pleasant countenance, with joy and with gladness, empathizing with the plight of the poor person and offering words of comfort. If one gives with a sad or demeaning face, then he loses the benefit of giving.

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