This article explaining some of the purposes that are served by the need for tzedakah is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press. One additional view not covered here is a teaching of the medieval philosopher Maimonides: Tzedakah also develops the virtue of generosity in the donor–not only earning merit for the giver but also nurturing personality improvement. In this view, all of Jewish practice can be seen as a means of cultivating virtues or character traits.
The word “tzedakah” in the Bible denotes “righteousness” in general, but in post-biblical Judaism it is used to denote charity, as if to suggest, according to many exponents of the idea, that there should be no condescension in alms-giving. The poor are not to be patronized but given the assistance they need because they have a just claim on the wealthy. The Jerusalem Talmud records that in ancient Palestine a poor man when asking for help would say to his would-be benefactor: “Acquire merit for yourself,” as if to say: “I am doing you a favor.”
In a popular Jewish tale, when a rich man excuses the small size of his donation by protesting that he is unable to afford to give more generously because he has been obliged to pay his son’s gambling debts, the poor man retorts: “If your son wants to gamble let him do so with his own money, not with mine.” In a revealing midrashic anecdote, the Roman Governor [of second-century CE Palestine], Turnus Rufus, puts the question to Rabbi Akiba: “If, as you maintain, your God loves the poor, why does he not make them rich?” to which Akiba replies: “It is in order to give the rich the means of acquiring merit,” a quaint way of coping with the theological problem of why a beneficent God has created a world in which people suffer. A world without poverty would be an uncaring world; without those to whom compassion must be shown it would be a world without compassion.
A Hasidic master, in the same vein, once asked: “Since everything in God’s world must have a purpose, what purpose is served by the phenomenon of atheism?” God allows the possibility of unbelief, he concluded, because otherwise the rich would have so much faith that God will help the poor that they would not themselves think of trying to alleviate their suffering. Faith is admirable when exercised on one’s own behalf. Where the needs of others are concerned, it is essential to act as if there is no God to intervene.
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