Tzedakah in the Bible

The Bible backed up its exhortations to assist the poor with laws and practices that gave poor people a claim to a share of society?s wealth.

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Running through many aspects of these laws is a fundamental egalitarianism. Leviticus expresses it in the statement that all Israelites are “slaves” to God. This egalitarianism was concretized by the periodic cancellation of debts, the freeing of those who have sold themselves into servitude, and the restoration of land sold to pay off debts. While equality was not preserved at all times, conditions would be reset periodically. The purpose (and the condition) of what the Torah calls beracha (prosperity from God; literally “blessing”) is that beracha be shared widely. Even when the Torah recognizes the reality of their being rich and poor, it insists that each person be treated with dignity and justice. especially in moments when a person’s poverty is most evident.

In the Torah there is no overarching term for this system, which rabbinic Judaism calls tzedakah. The root tz-d-k in the Hebrew Bible generally refers to the quality of justice. Mishpat tzedek means laws that are just or courts that are just, as opposed to law that favors one group or social class. The same form, tzedek, is used to describe measures and weights that are honest and fair in commerce. The form tzedakah occurs predominantly in later biblical compositions—mostly in Second Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms, and Proverbs—where it means justice or integrity. Only in Daniel 4:24 is the word tzidka (the same consonants as tzedakah) used to refer particularly to concern for the poor.

In the Torah’s system, those who prospered were reminded of their social obligations as part of the rhythm of daily commerce, the turn of the seasons, and the cycles of years. No one knows to what extent the laws were ever practiced in biblical Israel. Even if the more radical sabbatical laws were never observed, the Torah’s scheme stands as a vivid depiction of an ideal economic system pervaded by a covenantal consciousness.

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Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett is the founder and director of MACHAR, a national project in the United States involving Jewish youth in service that promotes self-sufficiency and economic empowerment and in study of Jewish and American "texts" on wealth, success, and social responsibility.