The Biblical sources related to the commandment of tzedakah (charity) are found in this week’s Parsha, BeHar, in the section discussing the laws of the Sabbatical Year. The Torah states that any personal loans still outstanding at the end of this year are automatically cancelled. Nevertheless, God orders the people not to withhold loans close to the Sabbatical Year, but to lend the poor what they need.  The fundamental principles and detailed laws of tzedakah are found in these few verses:

If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren, in any of your cities, in your land that the Lord, your God, gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him…  You shall surely give him, and do not let your heart feel bad when you give to him, for as reward for this matter, the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your deeds and in your every undertaking.  For the poor will not cease to exist within the Land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute in your Land.”

As always, careful consideration of the details of the laws reveals their underlying philosophical outlook. In order to gain a clearer understanding of the Torah’s perspective on tzedakah, we will present the verses and the laws derived from them along with the philosophical insights of the great Biblical commentators.

  • If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren — Your family comes before anyone else.  A person’s first priority in charity must be his or her own family.  If a parent is out working on a committee for abandoned children while his own child is suffering or neglected, this verse directs him to re-examine his priorities.
  • in any of your cities —- The poor of your own city come before the poor in other cities.  Holding a benefit concert for the poor in a distant continent, when the slums and poverty of your own city stand in sight of the concert hall, is immoral.
  • in your land that the Lord, your God, gives you — The poor of the land of Israel take precedence over those outside of Israel.  The Jewish people’s national destiny is in the Land of Israel, therefore the Jews in Israel, who are working, defending and preserving our national heritage deserve our support before any other community.
  • you shall not harden your heart — Sometimes a person may give, but does  so begrudgingly, with a heavy, hard heart.  When we give, it must be with a joyful, generous feeling as well.  It is difficult enough for someone to have to take charity: to increase the pain and humiliation of the recipient by giving in a bad-tempered, brusque manner adds insult to injury.
  • nor close your hand against your destitute brother —  Do not decide to give and then close your hand.  Follow through with your commitment to tzedakah.  Do not treat your obligations to charity any less seriously than your obligation to the phone company, the government or a business associate.  Your word, your pledge and your commitment should be firm and reliable.
  • Rather, you shall open your hand to him — Translated literally, the verse reads, you shall open, open your hand — The repetition of the verb, “open” denotes repetition of the action which teaches us that the obligation to give is not a one time requirement but is an ongoing obligation.  Therefore a person should not say, “I have already given once, I have performed the mitzvah,” rather, he should be prepared to give again and again.
  • you shall lend him his requirement — You are not obligated to make another person rich, but you must give him what he requires.
  • whatever is lacking to him —  We must be aware that what is lacking is a subjective judgment. What is luxury for one person may well be a necessity that is lacking for another. Is an air-conditioner a luxury?  If a family lives in a hot, humid climate and before they hit hard times, they owned an air-conditioner, the verse “whatever is lacking to him,” teaches us that it is legitimate tzedakah to purchase an air-conditioner for this family.
  • You shall surely give — The word “give” is repeated, teaching us that we must give even a hundred times.
  • him — Let it be between you and him.  Do not publicize the charity and cause him embarrassment. Tzedakah should ideally be given as anonymously as possible.
  • and let your heart not feel bad when you give him, for in return for this word (Hebrew: davar, also translated as “matter”) the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your deeds and in your every undertaking — You will even be rewarded for your word to give if, through circumstances beyond your control, you were not able to follow through.  You will also be rewarded if your word makes others give, as it is a great mitzvah to encourage others to give tzedakah.16 (It is for this reason that publicizing donations is permitted. When people see an influential person, or many people of their financial status, giving to a charitable institution, they are more likely to follow suit and support it also.)  In addition, if you cannot afford to give money, you will even be rewarded if you offer the poor at least words of encouragement and hope.
  • You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute — You shall give to each of the poor according to his needs and dignity.  To one you may have to give only money, for another, you may also have to help him purchase what he needs or prepare his food; some you may have to actually feed with your own hands.

To people whose experience of giving has been solely through donations to large organizations, the notion of personally giving money to a beggar may sound foreign, even disturbing. (Imagine, you actually must see the face of the recipient!) Yet, in Orthodox communities, it is quite common for the Jewish poor to go door-to-door asking for aid. In many cases, the person’s financial needs will have been investigated by the local rabbi and the beggar will carry a discreet letter from him certifying that he or she is truly needy. With or without such credentials, however, the poor can usually rely on their fellow Jews to help them, even with a small amount. The fact that this practice is still alive and well is testimony to the inbred mechanism of tzedakah in these communities. The laws regarding one’s demeanor when giving are therefore as relevant today as in the past.

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