Ask the Expert: Medical Research as Tzedakah

Does giving money for research count as charity?

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Question: If I donate to medical research (like the Susan G Komen for the Cure foundation) does that count as giving to tzedakah (charity)? I thought tzedakah was only giving money to people in need, and I don’t know if medical research really falls under that rubric.
–Betty, San Antonio

the expertAnswer: Tzedakah is a really complicated issue, and you’re right, Betty, that there are some standards given in rabbinic literature for what counts as tzedakah.

In America we tend to equate tzedakah with charity, so we might think that a donation we give to public radio, an arts organization, or a wildlife refuge would count as tzedakah because according to tax laws they’re charitable donations. But in fact, tzedakah comes from the root tzedek, meaning justice or righteousness, and it’s rooted in an idea that Jews have an obligation to create a just society, where everyone’s basic needs are met. Typically, this means giving money.

The Shulhan Arukh, the seminal Jewish legal code from the 16th century, says, “How much should one give? If he can afford, give as much as the poor people need. If he can’t afford all the poor peoples’ needs, he should give what he can. How much? Up to 20% of his assets is admirable. 10% is intermediate. Less than this is an evil sign.” (Yoreh Deah 249) The Shulhan Arukh set the standard here that all Jews should aim to give 10% of their income to tzedakah, and more specifically, to the poor. The Ashkenazi commentator, the Rema, wrote a gloss on the Shulhan Arukh where he makes it very clear that the 10% one gives shouldn’t be just for the general functioning of the community, like the upkeep of the synagogue–it must be for the poor. So donating food and clothing is tzedakah, and donating money to someone to buy or distribute food and clothing is also tzedakah. Giving money to your local park district, or even your child’s private school is not tzedakah. (Historically there have been some debates about whether funding one’s childrens Jewish education can be counted as tzedakah, but most modern rabbinic authorities have rejected this idea, because there is a separate commandment to teach one’s children (Deuteronomy 11:19), and there is a reluctance to combine the obligation to give tzedakah with anything else.)

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