Anyone who has ever studied another language knows that there are certain ideas and concepts that can only be understood in their original language. In Jewish tradition, too, there are values embedded in its very language of keywords and phrases that cannot always be adequately translated or explained. The Hebrew word tzedakah is one example.
Although often translated as “charity,” tzedakah is not equivalent to charity. Rather, its root means “justice.” Charity comes from the Latin word caritas, which means “love.” The concept of charity in English is considered voluntary because it comes from the heart. In Christianity, charity is something which people give when their hearts move them.
In contrast, tzedakah/justice is a biblical and rabbinic concept that embodies the idea that Jews are obligated to pursue social and economic justice. Jews must help the oppressed members of society as well as those in financial straits not because they want to, but because they are required to do so as one way of serving God, performing God’s commandments, and even acting like God. (Indeed, in the biblical text the word “tzedakah” is usually used as an expression of God’s own righteousness and justice—and human beings are commanded to pursue tzedek (a closely related word), social justice.) Tzedakah is a way of looking at the world and understanding the human role in creating a more perfect world—and by doing so, imitating qualities of the Divine.
The giving of tzedakah is even equated with a spiritually righteous and expiating act of religious significance. Rabbi Akiba, one of the greatest rabbis from the time of the Talmud, once stated that when the ancient Temple in Jerusalem used to stand, the altar, upon which animal sacrifices were made, used to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. But since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, Rabbi Akiba claimed that now a person’s dining table atones for each person’s sins. How so? By being able to invite needy guests home and to provide them with food.
The talmudic rabbis felt strongly about the spiritual significance of tzedakah, claiming that when one practices tzedakah and justice, it is as though he or she had filled the world with lovingkindness. One rabbinic teaching states that when a beggar stands before you asking for alms, you should know that the holy presence of God stands by the beggar’s side
Tzedakah is closely related to gemilut chasadim, which involves actions and commitment beyond mere financial gifts. It can mean donating one’s time and energy to helping others, such as reading for the blind, visiting in a hospital, or volunteering in a food bank. The Jewish tradition requires us to give something of ours, money and time, to those in need. It also recognizes that throughout our lives we will all be in need at various times, of financial assistance or simply of care throughout life’s challenges, and that providing such assistance is required of individuals and communities. In the theology of Judaism, all of our possessions, and even the time we are allotted on earth, are but a loan from the Creator. Therefore, when we engage in the commandment and duty of tzedakah (and the related category of gemilut chasadim), we are securing a more equitable distribution of God’s gifts to humanity.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.