What Really Counts as Tzedakah?

It’s the end of the year, and you’ve probably been getting a lot of emails from your favorite (and not so favorite) charities asking for money to help them reach their budget goals by Jan 1. How do you decide which organizations you’ll give to? And how much do you give?giving_tzedakah.jpeg

In a recent Forward Opinion piece Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about charitable giving among Jews. We’re commanded to give at least 10% of our income to tzedakah, and many of us probably think of any charitable donation–be it to our synagogue, a Jewish day school, a homeless shelter, or an art museum–as tzedakah. But it turns out: not so much.

Jewish law defines tzedakah as material support for the poor. Rabbis over the centuries have debated the precise parameters of tzedakah, but the arguments always hinge on whether the gift in question serves the needs of the poor. Gifts that do not address poverty are not tzedakah.

(Emphasis mine.)

So we asked Rabbi Jacobs to give us some giving tips as the end of the near draws nigh, and she explained to us how she and her husband make their own giving decisions:

“First, we divide the world into four categories: New York (our home city), the rest of the United States, Israel, and the rest of the world, and decide what percentage of money to allocate to each of these areas. Then, we allocate certain percentages of money to organizations that focus on community organizing, advocacy and education, community development, and direct service. We give the highest percentage of money to community organizing groups, as we believe that we can best end poverty by involving ordinary people in determining their own future…

Finally, we divide our giving between groups that primarily work with Jews, and those that primarily work with non-Jews. Jewish legal sources ask us to prioritize the care of other Jews, but also ask us to prioritize the greatest need. We balance these two obligations by giving a higher percentage of our money to groups that work with non-Jews, but by giving groups that work with Jews a percentage that is disproportionate to the percentage of Jews in the world.”

Another thing to keep in mind, from another helpful and interesting article, is that donating internationally packs more punch than giving money locally. According to Sandy Stonesifer at Slate.com, your donations will almost always yield greater returns when given (to reputable organizations) internationally.

So if you haven’t given any real tzedakah this year, now’s the time to get out there (online, probably) and do it. Just remember to make sure it addresses poverty, and consider giving internationally, where you can make the most difference.

Discover More

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Tzedakah in the Jewish Tradition

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Tzedakah: History and Development

History and Development of Tzedakah. Jewish Tzedakah. Charitable Giving.