Volunteers at Masbia, a kosher soup kitchen network and food pantry in New York City. (Courtesy of Masbia)

Tzedakah vs. Gemilut Chasadim: Is It Better To Give Money or Time?

What is the difference between charity and benevolence?

The theory that the rich acquire merit by charity might suggest that alms-giving is no more than a calculated attempt at storing up good deeds in a spiritual bank in order to draw on them in the future. There is little doubt that for many, perhaps for most, there is an element of self-seeking in charitable endeavors: giving to have one’s name in the list of prominent donors or, on a slightly higher level, to help one go to heaven. It is interesting to find that the talmudic rabbis, while generally stressing the importance of disinterested action, are tolerant of impure motivation when it comes to helping the poor, since, after all, the needs of the poor are redressed whatever the motivation of the benefactors.

A talmudic saying has it that if one says, “I give this coin to the poor so that my sick child may recover,” or, “I give so that I shall merit the World to Come,” there is no fault in this, even if it falls short of the ideal. Yet in order to widen the scope of charity the rabbis introduce the much broader concept of benevolence ([in] Hebrew, gemilut chasadim, literally “bestowing kindnesses”).

In a talmudic saying the differences between charity and benevolence are said to lie in three areas.

  1. Charity can only be carried out by giving money, whereas benevolence involves giving of one’s person, for example by a kindly word or a pat on the shoulder or by generally offering words of comfort and consolation.
  2. Charity is directed to the poor, whereas benevolence involves the expression of goodwill to all, rich or poor, healthy or sick, to the successful as well as to those who fall short of success.
  3. Charity is given to the living. Benevolence can be extended to the dead by attending to the burial and going to the funeral.

In reality the difference is one of disposition. The charitable person may give as an obligation imposed from without; his generosity may stem solely from his sense of duty. Benevolence, on the other hand, comes from within, from the compassionate heart. As the old Jewish saying has it: “Charity awaits the cry of distress. Benevolence anticipates the cry of distress.” Among acts of benevolence especially singled out in the Jewish tradition are: visiting the sick, attending funerals, comforting mourners, and, very pressing in ancient communities, redeeming captives held to ransom by kidnappers.

Associated with charity and benevolence is the cultivation of the charitable disposition. “Judge everyone in the scale of merit” is the advice given in Ethics of the Fathers [Pirkei Avot], meaning: Find excuses for the apparent ill behavior of others and be charitable in your assessment of their conduct. A similar saying is: “Judge not your neighbor until you have been in his situation.” Even with regard to charity itself, a Hasidic master read the verse (Leviticus 19:17): “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” to mean “Do not hate another because you have a good heart.” Generous persons should be charitably disposed even to the niggardly and ungenerous who have not been blessed with the good heart they are fortunate enough to possess. That is how God has made them.

This shows an admirable religious advocacy of tolerance, an area in which religious people have often been among the worst offenders. Naturally, it can be overdone. Judaism certainly does not encourage an attitude of benevolent acceptance of evil and the question is obviously one of achieving the correct balance. Many Jewish teachers, for all that, have preferred to err on the side of goodwill. When another Hasidic master gave some money to a poor man and his followers expressed surprise, pointing out that the man was thoroughly disreputable, the master replied: “How can I discriminate? God did not discriminate when He gave the money to a reprobate like me in the first place.”

To achieve a balanced attitude is notoriously difficult. The Talmud reads the verse: “There shall be no needy among you” (Deuteronomy 15: 4) to mean that your first duty is to see that there are no needy among your own, that is, first take care of your own and your own family’s needs—an ancient version of “Charity begins at home.” Yet the Talmud continues that anyone who goes through life with this as his maxim will eventually become poor, since few will place any confidence in one whose attitude is grasping and completely selfish.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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