Tzedakah Themes & Theology

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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.

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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.

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